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Pembina Study Looks to Rein In Skyrocketing e-Commerce Emissions

As e-commerce grows—and accelerates precipitously under COVID-19—freight emissions are likewise surging. A recent report by the Pembina Institute sets out to address the issue by identifying the habits and expectations driving it, and the actions consumers and businesses can take to make online shopping less harmful, if not less appealing.

“On a recent Tuesday in May,” Pembina reports, “Canada Post made a record 2.1 million parcel deliveries—three times the norm for this time of year.” But while the pandemic is driving a particular spike in volume, the spree has been going on for a while. 

Canadians are shopping online more and more, with the average number of e-commerce purchases growing 58% between 2016 and 2018. The shift to browsing e-tailers around the world rather than the brick-and-mortar shop just down the street has led to freight traffic that is “projected to surpass passenger emissions by 2030,” Pembina writes.

In its March 5 report Just-in-Time Delivery, Pembina “identified three major trends changing the landscape of goods movement in Canada.” The first is that more Canadians are entering the online shopping scene, thanks to “increased connectivity and the emergence of more sophisticated e-commerce platforms.” Since the start of the pandemic, it notes, revenues from online purchases “have nearly doubled for retail merchants.”

The second trend is an increased desire for just-in-time delivery, a consumer-oriented option that leaves retailers “with less time to optimize their delivery practices and ensure that each truck leaves with a full truckload on a well-planned route.” What this ultimately means, Pembina adds, is more trucks on the road, and therefore more CO2 emissions.

Finally, “even as customers’ expectations for fast delivery increases, their willingness to pay for it has fallen—62% of consumers expect free delivery for everyday purchases.” This expectation that online shipping be both fast and free inevitably drives even more environmental impacts. 

But just as they are driving the problem, consumers can play a critical role in addressing it, by spreading out their shopping dollar and mixing online with local purchases. Retailers, meanwhile, could simply decline to provide unlimited fast, free shipping. Shipping preference defaults set to the lowest-carbon option—slow, low, and efficient—could also help encourage shoppers to make better, greener choices.  

Other steps for retailers are to educate consumers at checkout about the comparative footprints of the different delivery options, move toward fleet electrification and better curbside management, and encourage “predictable, consolidated delivery” through subscription services, Pembina concludes.