Is e-commerce really a key element in the decarbonization of freight transport?

This article originally appeared in our newsletter Mobility Decryption as of June 2, 2021. To receive the next articles by email as soon as they are published, sign up now.

With growth for the year 2020 that reached + 37% [1], e-commerce* emerges as the big winner of the covid-19 crisis, with its successive confinements. As it continues its spectacular progression and long-term installation in our modes of consumption**, the debate rages over its carbon footprint compared to the traditional mode of physical purchase, multiple studies leading to opposite conclusions. [1][2].

E-commerce: what carbon weight?

When analyzing the emissions reported by e-commerce companies that disclose their carbon footprint without omitting significant items, it is important to note that the manufacture of the goods purchased and the use of the products sold represent almost the entire carbon footprint of these companies (between 85-95%), compared to just 5-10% for transport-related emissions (upstream freight, downstream freight, guest travel) [3]. Therefore, before comparing the relative virtue of purchasing methods, let us not forget that it is first of all superfluous consumption that is a vector of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to induced emissions, the development of warehouses dedicated to e-commerce, built on agricultural or non-artificial land, also contributes to the reduction of carbon sinks. If today the artificialization caused by e-commerce represents less than 1% of the average annual artificial surface in France [1]It is above all the current construction dynamics and the lack of a regulatory framework for these logistics buildings that are contested, as e-commerce warehouses are not covered by the climate law that aims to limit the construction of commercial areas in natural areas .

E-commerce versus in-store commerce: a win to qualify?

Despite its appearance of dematerialization via digital, e-commerce is in fact a highly carbon-emitting activity. However, many players and studies present it as an alternative that emits less CO2 than traditional commerce. [2]. So, e-commerce vs in-store commerce: who is the winner in this low carbon match? The classic argument in favor of e-commerce is to claim that the customer’s trip to the store by car is “replaced” by an optimized delivery to multiple customers, which generates fewer trips and, therefore, fewer emissions. This declaration needs to be qualified on 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 actually replaces the other. However, very few consumers stop going to the store to do their shopping thanks to e-commerce. Not only have the surface areas of commercial establishments been 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 private purchases remains unchanged and, therefore, home deliveries lead to a net increase in mobility. [4]. This way, e-commerce-related emissions on these items would not replace those from traditional commerce, but would be added to them.
  • Transport by couriers would be optimized in relation to the movements of individuals in stores: the use of an “average box” hides disparities in purchasing practices, whether in stores or online. Indeed, although the car continues to be the case of reference for shopping at the store, the modal share of the car varies greatly (from 24 to 88%) depending on the location (large agglomerations or medium-sized cities, center or periphery) and the type of business (supermarkets or small/medium-sized companies), with the alternative often being low-carbon modes of transport, such as walking, cycling or public transport (from 10 to 74%) [5]. In the latter cases, the reference situation “100% automotive” is obviously no longer valid. Furthermore, an individual often bundles purchases when going to the store, which can significantly reduce the emissions associated with the act of purchasing the product in question at the store. However, the grouping of purchases is not taken into account in studies that compare e-commerce and in-store commerce, which take as a reference the purchase of a single product [2]. Furthermore, the optimization of rounds is increasingly contested, namely due to the product return rate (from 10 to 30% depending on the sector), additional deliveries due to the absence of the recipient (the first attempt absence rate is around 15%) and new consumer trends, such as fast delivery [1]. The race to ever-shorter delivery times has resulted in lower truck load factors and increased use of faster, more carbon-intensive modes. [6] :

Greenhouse gas and NOx emissions according to order delivery deadlines | in kgCO2 or gm

This way, Several parameters are decisive in the greenhouse gas balance of last mile logistics: the type of engine, the occupancy rate of the vehicle, the absenteeism rate in the case of home delivery and the product return rate [1]. This way, E-commerce hides a diversity of more or less carbon-intensive practices on the part of transporters and a no less rich diversity of reference situations., between a person who travels by car to make a single purchase and a person who groups purchases made by bicycle. And depending on the comparison chosen, the most virtuous in terms of climate will either be e-commerce or physical stores, as the study “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping” (2013) illustrates. [7] :

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

No KO wins, therefore, for e-commerce. But is this comparison really the right fight to fight? Faced with this lack of a clear answer, and while e-commerce is already well established in our consumption patterns, isn’t the challenge adapting our uses to ensure the lowest possible carbon trading? , regardless of the purchase mode ?

How to reduce the carbon impact of e-commerce?

  1. The role of consumers:
  • Almost all emissions associated with e-commerce are due to the manufacture and use of the product. Thus, it is above all a matter of rethinking our need and not giving in to excessive consumption.
  • The type of delivery: favoring deliveries at relay points and favoring low-carbon modes of transport to pick up the package (eg based on environmental information displayed by e-commerce platforms, see below).
  • Delivery times: Keep fast deliveries to a minimum. Do we really need this new barbecue in less than 24 hours?
  • Consolidate your purchases into a single delivery.
  1. The role of e-commerce players:
  • Favoring low-carbon transport modes for upstream transport: Choosing air transport over sea transport can explode the carbon footprint of an purchased product (the emission factor for air transport is approximately 100 times greater than the maritime transport).
  • Decarbonization of the “last kilometer”*** (or even the previous segment that leads to the last logistics warehouse): vehicle motorization is still largely thermal. There are several solutions, such as the cargo bike and the development of reciprocating engines. [8].
  • Display the carbon footprint of different types of delivery (relay point or home, delivery time, etc.) to increase consumer awareness.

— Article written by Juliette Sorret (Consultant)

* The distance sale of products and their delivery at a relay point or at home ** The share of online commerce reached 13.4% of retail commerce in 2020 *** Semantics that should not be taken literally: the terminal segment is generally longer, as it connects the last logistics warehouse, usually located in the suburbs or on the outskirts of cities, to the final customer, potentially much more than a kilometer from the warehouse… — –

Sources: [1] France’s Strategy [2] Olivier Wyman, Ecocomparator Coliposte, FEVAD [3] Analysis based on annual reports from e-commerce companies, Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) statements and carbon expertise [4] 6t [5] CEREMA [6] MIT Transportation and Logistics Center [7] UCDAVIS Institute for Transport Studies [8] carbon 4

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