E-commerce, last mile and greenhouse gas emissions
The increase in traffic and associated congestion caused by the explosion of e-commerce has also created a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
In the USA, the EPA estimates that nearly 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the Transportation industry, which makes it the largest contributor of all industries. Emissions in this sector increased by 23% since 1990 but largely due to on-road vehicle traffic (there was actually a reduction for aviation and maritime transport).
In Canada, emissions from Transportation represent 24% and have increased 43% since 1990. This is one of 2 sectors (the other being Oil & Gas) that have increased and offset any improvements coming from other sectors.
So Transportation is a big contributor and this contribution has been increasing, even if fuel efficiency is improving and we see more and more electric vehicles. Now how has e-commerce compounded this increase ?
The vast majority of the increase has been trucks of all sizes which means more goods moving around. And more and more delivery trucks. As e-commerce continues to grow at 20% per year, this will only continue to increase.
Contrary to popular belief, many studies point out that shopping online actually has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional retail in-store shopping, even more so for single item purchases. This is not necessarily the case when grocery shopping,buying larger baskets (more items) or combined shopping (more stores per trip).
In both cases, the vast majority of emissions come from the last mile (from store/distribution hub to the consumer or end destination) which represents more emissions than all preceding transportation activities.
That being said, many additional improvements could be worked on such as reducing the number of failed deliveries (which generate more vehicle movements), order consolidation (grouping per address), using energy efficient delivery vehicles and increasing the use of local collection points or depots. And all these improvements would occur in the last mile segments so the gains could be significant.
So, online shopping can have a smaller carbon footprint than in-store shopping but we can do even better by adapting our habits. How about taking a walk to our neighborhood depot ?