Click, click, emit — the carbon cost of online shopping

By Maxine Joselow | 12/11/2019 06:36 AM EST

Thinking of ordering a holiday gift online? You might pause to consider the environmental impact of getting that product to your doorstep.

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm about the climate toll of delivery services, such as Inc., as consumers click their way through holiday shopping.

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm about the climate toll of delivery services, such as Inc., as consumers click their way through holiday shopping. Paul Hennessy/Zuma Press/Newscom

Thinking of ordering a holiday gift online? You might pause to consider the environmental impact of getting that product to your doorstep. Inc. and other companies are making it easier than ever to shop for the holidays. With one click of a button, you can have an item sent right to your doorstep, sometimes even with free next-day shipping.

But hidden behind this straightforward process is a big climate toll, said environmental and public health experts — the daily rumble of thousands of delivery trucks fanning out across the country.


The majority of trucks that transport goods are powered by fossil fuels like diesel, experts say. That means the process of getting gifts from warehouses to consumers involves pumping large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"Right now, under the status quo, basically every product, whether it ends up at the door or at the store, gets there via fossil fuel transportation," said Aileen Nowlan, senior manager for EDF+Business, a project of the Environmental Defense Fund that advocates for corporate sustainability.

"And this status quo is actually getting to be a more significant consequence for air pollution and climate change as companies offer faster shipping and free returns," she said.

The average American generates demand for about 60 tons of freight annually, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. The U.S. Postal Service — the largest parcel delivery service in the nation — delivered more than 5.1 billion packages last year.

Packages can travel on multiple trucks during their journey from a warehouse to a consumer, including large 18-wheelers and the seemingly omnipresent brown UPS delivery vehicles.

About 80% of all new trucks sold in the country last year were powered by diesel, according to data by IHS Markit.

The Diesel Technology Forum, an industry group, touts the benefits of diesel on its website. The group boasts that the transition to the next generation of diesel technologies — those that meet modern emissions controls — has prevented 26 million tons of nitrogen oxides and 59 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

But environmental and public health experts hold a less favorable view of the technology. They point to research showing that exposure to diesel exhaust is linked to higher rates of lung cancer, bladder cancer and other health conditions.

"I would just recognize that free shipping, free one-day delivery, it’s not free," said Sasan Saadat, research and policy analyst at Earthjustice. "It comes at the expense of the health of communities that live near warehouses and freight hubs."

Consumers vs. corporations

So what can consumers do to minimize the pollution stemming from their online purchases?

Nowlan said consumers shouldn’t feel as if they need to avoid online shopping altogether. She noted that transporting a product to a store, rather than a home, has a similar carbon footprint.

Instead, Nowlan recommended that consumers call on large corporations to clean up their act. "The best thing that consumers can do is to advocate for improvements in corporate practice," she said.

Saadat agreed with this assessment. He said that when possible, people can try giving homemade gifts rather than store-bought ones. But they should also consider advocating for corporate change.

"I personally have tried with friends and family to practice gift giving that doesn’t require buying anything, and to explore new ways of showing appreciation and gratitude," Saadat said.

"But I don’t think it’s a problem that we as consumers alone are responsible for fixing," he added. "I think these retailers and manufacturers and distributors make really large profits, and they have the resources to help."

The most significant step that corporations can take to clean up the delivery process is investing in more electric delivery trucks, said Jimmy O’Dea, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"From the point that a product reaches the shores of the United States to the point that it’s delivered to a local warehouse, those trips are prime for electrification," O’Dea said.

To that end, Amazon announced in September that it would purchase 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from startup automaker Rivian, in what one analyst called "quite possibly the largest single EV purchase in history" (Energywire, Sept. 20).

But other companies have been hesitant to follow Amazon’s lead, with some expressing wariness about the new technology.

"I shudder to think about buying 25,000 electric vehicles you have not seen yet each year for four years," Jim Bruce, senior vice president and chief energy policy officer for UPS Global Public Affairs, said at a recent event in Washington, D.C. (Energywire, Sept. 25).

"Maybe they’ve seen something we haven’t seen, but to purchase that many trucks, I mean, what if there’s a problem?" Bruce said.

Clean trucks and California

To force more companies to follow in Amazon’s footsteps, new regulations and policies are needed, sources said.

California offers an important case study, they said.

The California Air Resources Board earlier this year introduced the first state regulation of its kind to boost the sale of zero-emission trucks, including hybrid and electric models (Climatewire, Oct. 23).

The regulation would require manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of zero-emission trucks by 2024 and 2030. But environmentalists have criticized a draft of the rule as too weak.

CARB is set to revisit the rule at its next meeting tomorrow. O’Dea, who plans to attend the meeting, expressed hope that the board would suggest strengthening the standard in response to widespread concern.

"The hope is that they come back in December with a stronger proposal," he said. "This is one of the biggest policies on the table in the transportation sector in the United States. It will really set the tone for what’s going to happen on electric trucks for the next decade."

Saadat, of Earthjustice, echoed this sentiment.

"Right now, the Air Resources Board is likely to trail business as usual," he said. "What we need from them is to set a stronger rule that really brings manufacturers’ full heft to this effort. That’s the only way we’re going to avoid climate catastrophe and eliminate pollution for these communities living near freight hubs."

CARB spokesman Stanley Young said in an email to E&E News that the board remains committed to working with environmentalists and other stakeholders to craft an "ambitious" rule.

"We are always looking to set the most ambitious clean air standards possible, based on where current technologies are and how far our rules and incentives can move them in the direction of protecting public health," Young said. "This rule is no different."