Is e-commerce actually a key component in decarbonising freight transport?

This article originally appeared in our newsletter Deciphering mobility from June 2, 2021. To receive the following articles via email as soon as they are published, subscribe now.

With growth for 2020 that reached + 37% [1], e-commerce * seems to be the big winner of the covid-19 crisis, with its successive limitations. As it continues its spectacular progress and its long-term installation in our ways of spending **, there is a debate about its carbon footprint compared to the traditional way of physical shopping, and different studies lead to opposite conclusions. [1][2].

E-commerce: what weight of carbon?

Analyzing the emissions reported by e-commerce companies that publish carbon footprint without omitting significant items, it is important to note that the production of purchased goods and the use of sold products represent almost all the carbon footprint of these companies (between 85-95%), compared to only 5-10% for transport-related emissions (upstream cargo, downstream cargo, visitor travel) [3]. So, before we compare the relative value of purchasing methods, let’s not forget that excessive consumption is primarily a vector of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to induced emissions, the development of warehouses for e-commerce, built on agricultural or non-artificial land, also contributes to the reduction of carbon sinks. If today the art caused by e-commerce represents less than 1% of the average annual artificial space in France [1]the current dynamics of construction and the lack of a regulatory framework for these logistics facilities, e-commerce warehouses that are not covered by the climate law, which aims to limit the construction of commercial areas in natural areas, are disputed.

E-commerce versus in-store commerce: winning qualifiers?

Despite the appearance of dematerialization through the digital network, e-commerce is indeed a high-carbon activity. However, many players and studios present it as an alternative that emits less CO2 than traditional trade. [2]. So, e-commerce versus in-store commerce: who is the winner in this low-carbon game? The classic argument in favor of e-commerce is the confirmation that the customer’s path to car sales is “replaced” by optimized delivery for more customers, which generates less travel and thus less emissions. This statement should be qualified in two key points:

  • E-commerce would replace traditional commerce: counting avoided emissions for e-commerce compared to in-store commerce is only relevant if one really replaces the other. However, very few consumers stop going to the store to make a purchase thanks to e-commerce. Not only have the areas of commercial buildings remained globally stable over the last 15 years despite the growth of e-commerce, but the development of e-commerce is not necessarily accompanied by a reduction in mobility practices. Indeed, in some cases, mobility for shopping by individuals remains unchanged, so home deliveries lead to a net addition to mobility. [4]. in that way, e-commerce shows on these items would not replace those from traditional commerce, but would be added to them.
  • Delivery by courier would be optimized in relation to the movement of individuals in stores: the use of the “average case” hides disparities in shopping practices, whether in stores or online. Indeed, even if the car remains a reference case for in-store purchases, the modal share of cars varies greatly (from 24 to 88%) depending on location (large agglomerations or medium-sized cities, center or periphery) and type of business (supermarkets or small / medium) businesses), alternatives are often low-carbon modes of transport such as walking, cycling or public transport (10 to 74%) [5]. In the latter cases, the “100% car” reference situation is clearly no longer valid. In addition, an individual will often group purchases when going to the store, which can significantly reduce emissions associated with the act of buying the product in question at the store. However, the grouping of purchases was not taken into account in studies comparing e-commerce and commerce in stores, which are taken as a reference buying one product [2]. In addition, round optimization is increasingly controversial, especially due to product return rates (10 to 30% depending on the sector), additional deliveries due to absence of recipients (first try absenteeism rate is around 15%) and new consumer trends, such as fast delivery [1]. The race for ever shorter delivery times has resulted in fewer truck load factors and increased use of faster and more carbon modes. [6] :

Greenhouse gas and NOx emissions by package delivery deadlines in kgCO2 or gm

in that way, Several parameters are crucial in the balance of greenhouse gases in last mile logistics: engine type, vehicle occupancy rate, home delivery absence rate and product return rate [1]. On this way, e-commerce hides a variety of more or less carbon-intensive practices by carriers and a no less rich variety of reference situations, between a person who travels by car to make one purchase and one who groups his purchases made by bicycle. And depending on the chosen comparison, the most valuable in terms of climate will sometimes be e-commerce, sometimes physical commerce, as illustrated in the study “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping” (2013) [7] :

Comparison of greenhouse gas emissions between in-store trade and e-commerce (“traditional customer”: in-store trade, “cybernaut” = e-commerce without fast delivery, “cybernaut impatient” = e-commerce with fast delivery) | in kgCO2e

There is no KO victory therefore for e-commerce. But is this comparison really a real fight for a fight? Faced with this lack of a clear answer, and while e-commerce is now well established in our consumption patterns, isn’t it a challenge to adjust our use sooner to guarantee the lowest possible carbon trade ?, regardless of the mode of purchase?

How to reduce the impact of e-commerce on carbon?

  1. Consumer role:
  • Almost all e-commerce-related emissions are due to the production and use of products. So, above all, it is a matter of rethinking our needs and not indulging in excessive spending.
  • Delivery type: favor deliveries to relay points and favor low-carbon transport modes to download packages (for example, based on environmental information displayed by e-commerce platforms, see below).
  • Delivery times: reduce delivery to a minimum. Do we really need this new barbecue in less than 24 hours?
  • Combine your purchases into one delivery.
  1. The role of e-commerce players:
  • For upstream transport, favor lower-carbon modes of transport: the choice of air transport over sea transport can cause the carbon footprint of the purchased product to explode (the emission factor for air transport is approximately 100 times higher than in maritime transport).
  • Decarbonization of the “last kilometer” *** (or even the previous segment leading to the last logistics warehouse): vehicle motorisation is still largely thermal. There are several solutions such as cargo bikes and the development of alternative engines [8].
  • Display the carbon footprint of different types of delivery (relay point or home, delivery time, etc.) to raise consumer awareness.

— Article written by Juliette Sorret (Consultant) juliette.sorret@carbone4.com

* Distance sales of products and their delivery to the relay point or at home ** The share of online trade reached 13.4% of retail sales in 2020. *** Semantics that should not be interpreted literally: the terminal segment is generally longer because it connects the last logistics warehouse , located mainly in the suburbs or on the outskirts of cities, with the end customer, potentially much more than one kilometer from the warehouse … – –

Sources: [1] French strategy [2] Olivier Wyman, Coliposte Eco-comparator, FEVAD [3] Analysis based on annual e-commerce reports, Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) statements and carbon expertise [4] 6t [5] CEREMA [6] MIT Center for Transport and Logistics [7] UCDAVIS Institute for Traffic Studies [8] Carbon 4

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