E-commerce could help industrial countries reach Kyoto targets

The internet could help industrial countries reach their Kyoto carbon emission targets by cutting greenhouse gas emissions from shopping traffic and reducing industrial energy demands, according to recent European and US research.

A report published by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (SwEPA) shows that the total amount of fuel consumed in transporting groceries to consumers decreases significantly if people – particularly those in densely populated urban areas – buy their food online, rather than making individual roundtrips to the supermarket.

Meanwhile, recent research from the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (CECS) in the US claims that internet-driven changes already appearing in the US economy could have profound effects on US efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

While the US economy grew by more than nine percent in 1997 and 1998, the amount of energy consumed for every dollar of economic output – energy intensity – fell by four percent in both years. The average yearly improvement from 1987 to 1996 was less than one percent. The CECS attributes a third of this improvement to expansion in low energy sectors such as information technology.

The main factor driving improvements in energy intensity in the US is the replacement of shops and stores by online retailing. For instance, the CECS report calculates that the ratio of building energy per book sold in traditional bookstores versus online stores such as Amazon is 16 to 1.

The US research also tallies with the Swedish findings. Both agree that internet shopping uses less energy to get a package to the customer’s house: shipping 10 pounds of packages by overnight air uses 40 percent less fuel than driving roundtrip to the shopping mall, while ground shipping by truck uses just one tenth of the energy of driving yourself, the Americans say.

The Swedes looked at grocery deliveries by van. They found that on round trip distances of up to 185 km, a van carrying between 25 and 35 consumer orders uses less fuel than the equivalent number of individual journeys. When the delivery route exceeds 185 km the energy consumption for the delivery van will be greater than that for traditional shopping.

The Swedes calculated that if 10% of people in a given area use the internet to do their shopping, the decrease in energy consumption is between five and seven percent depending on the length of the delivery route. At 25 and 50% the energy consumption decreases even more.

However, these decreases failed to appear when the population is spread over a wide area, in the countryside for example, or when the number of orders per delivery van is low.

The research on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that the internet could improve prospects for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, both by reducing the need for commercial buildings and by saving paper – despite growing use of office paper. The CECS says that if present internet trends continue the need for commercial building space could be reduced by five percent leading to energy savings of 53 billion kW hours per year. Up to 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be sunk into unlogged forests by 2008.

A recent EPA analysis concluded that the shift away from large warehouses, stores and energy intensive industries could mean standard estimates for US energy and carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 may be overstated by the equivalent of 175 power stations and 300 million tonnes, respectively.

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