Online shopping and home deliveries: how can we reduce carbon emissions?

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Do you know how much carbon you produce when you buy something? The UK is the third market worldwide for online shopping. Read the post to find out how we can decarbonise last-mile deliveries.

by Daniela Paddeu

Have you ever wondered how much carbon you generate when you buy a product? An increasing number of people look for organic or sustainable products, buy from sustainable companies, try to reduce plastics/packaging. We might feel we are sustainable consumers, but we still want our products to be delivered on the next day, sometimes the same day or even the same hour. Because it is convenient and appealing. However, it is also definitely not sustainable.

The UK is the first market in Europe for e-commerce, and the third in the world, just after China and the U.S.

Buying is easy: you can buy whatever you want, have it delivered whenever you want, and you can also return it if you don’t like it. It’s easy! Consumers buy much more than they need, and 25% of products are returned. This generates an increased volume of van movements (+106% increase in the last 25 years), and numbers are expected to significantly grow in the future.

Therefore, it is urgent to design and undertake actions to reduce the negative impact of last-mile deliveries. This was the main driver of the CoDe ZERO project. The project explored stakeholders’ perspective towards sustainable solutions to decarbonise urban freight, focussing on the North of England. Together with key freight stakeholders based in the North, we co-designed a roadmap with a series of solutions that can be implemented in the next 20 years to reduce carbon emissions from freight movements in urban areas.

The challenge of changing behaviour…

Findings show that stakeholders understand the importance of decarbonising urban freight to achieve the net zero target by 2050 (or even sooner). They also foresee challenges, mainly related to the development of efficient cleaner technological solutions and to behaviour/organisational change. They believe that there will not be a single perfect solution. Instead, urban freight decarbonisation will require the integration of a series of technical solutions and organisational/behavioural change.

Electrification and new fuels seem to be the most promising solution to decarbonise urban freight.

Among the technical solutions, electrification and new fuels (e.g., hydrogen) are seen as the most promising ways to achieve urban freight decarbonisation. However, their full implementation might require time, especially due to technological development, and other solutions would be needed to start reducing carbon emissions in the short term. These include, for example, the use of cleaner fuels (e.g., biogases), urban freight consolidation schemes, and the use of e-cargo bikes together with micro-consolidation. However, there might be some big challenges to implement these solutions, and a lot of uncertainty towards their effectiveness. For example, big logistics operators already consolidate at a very optimal level. So, are we sure this is going to be a commercially/operationally viable option? Also, electric might not be the only net zero solution for an urban environment. Can Compressed Natural Gas or Liquefied Natural Gas have a role given the goal is net zero not absolute zero?

Consolidation schemes, and collaborative schemes in general, were identified as being equally “powerful” compared to more technological solutions. However, bigger companies might be in a stronger position in terms of managing and sharing information and operations. So, what if some players gain a greater advantage than others, and smaller operators are not strong enough to survive?

How do we get there?

In general, the findings of the project indicate that there might be a range of solutions to decarbonise urban freight, but it is not clear how these solutions should be practically adopted, and where responsibilities lie. Considering future policy and research, a strong final question about urban freight decarbonisation remains: how do we get there?

If you want to find more, you can read the final report.

This blog post was written by Dr Daniela Paddeu who is a senior researcher (freight specialist) at CTS.

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