Penelope Ody Column: Cutting the carbon

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Climate change activists happily disrupt our cities – but will they abandon their smartphones?

It seems curious that a generation that has embraced smartphones, social media and online shopping is among the most vociferous in demanding “zero carbon emissions” within the very near future.

Researchers at McMasters University in Canada last year predicted that by 2040 the information and communications industry could account for more than 14 per cent of global carbon emissions; for comparison, the entire global transport industry accounts for around 28 per cent of emissions today. Estimates vary but some sources suggest that manufacture of the average smart phone creates up to 55kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) – produced from mining the rare metals needed and manufacturing the electronics – and constantly replacing their mobiles with the latest device is a priority for many millennials.

Add to that the carbon cost of using it for just an hour a day: 1,250kg CO2e in a year or the equivalent of flying from London to New York, one way in economy class. To add a reality check, Pew Research suggests that average teenagers actually spend nine hours a day on their smartphones – the CO2e for nine New York flights a year. Our climate change warriors should certainly be involved in some serious tree-planting to offset their carbon emissions.

Then there is delivery for all those online shopping orders. The logistics industry has invested heavily in “information and communications” systems – more CO2e – giving shoppers a predicted delivery window, enabling them to track their parcels, and equipping drivers with handhelds for signatures which will also instantly generate an e-mail to customers telling them their parcel has arrived. As well as a scribbled card telling me my parcel is in the garage or the wood-store, I now regularly find an e-mail – sent in real time from the driver’s device – also telling me where it is when I arrive home: yet more CO2e.

IT apart, there is the little matter of fossil fuels. Judging by the sound they usually make, I’ve heard no obvious signs of delivery vans in my area that might be battery powered. Most are still diesel and regardless of whether that online order is intended for home delivery, collection at a parcel shop, to a high street store for click and collect or even ultimately via a battery-powered drone – it doesn’t arrive on a carbon-free magic carpet. Currently the EU emissions target for vans is 175g CO2e per kilometre. The average van travels around 12,800 miles a year (20,600km) so about 3,600kg CO2e a year – three economy flights to New York: so another tree from the climate warriors?

Alternatively, not spending even 30 minutes a day ordering items via a smartphone but instead travelling (walking, cycling or taking public transport, of course) to a shop to choose, buy, and carry home a desired item might only incur the extra “cost” of the odd 120g CO2e for eating a banana en route, since the CO2e “cost” of making the item and transporting it from source to either e-com warehouse or shop will be much the same.

Obviously you can continue playing this CO2e counting game ad absurdum, but one does wonder if those demanding that we give up our gas boilers and ovens, our fossil-fuelled cars and lorries, and vow never to eat red meat again, have actually looked at the carbon footprint of their own digitally enabled lifestyles? If they had, then perhaps they might return to supporting their neighbourhood shops and local high streets; or maybe to eschewing avocados flown in from South America in favour of something grown closer to home?

While consumers wishing to abandon fossil fuels worry about the range capacity, availability of charging points, and price of electric vehicles (EV), those wanting to swap their diesel trucks for something more environmentally friendly face greater challenges. Batteries are heavy – rather heavier than existing engines – which may affect both the capacity of vans and the legality of driver’s licences, while lengthy charging times can keep expensive vehicles off the road for rather longer than a current diesel fill.

Tesla has yet to launch its much heralded “Semi” truck – with a range of 300 miles and a £110,000 price tag – but many other manufacturers are already in production with assorted EVs and electric vans. Claimed ranges are up to 170 miles with suggestions of 80 per cent charged within 40 minutes at a DC rapid charging station. Even so, to transform the nation’s entire delivery van fleet and create not just sufficient charging stations, but sufficient power within the grid to provide the electricity needed, by the climate campaigners preferred zero-carbon date in the mid-2020s seems extremely unlikely.

So where does that leave the digital generations: the millennials and the even more environmentally conscious generation Z (all those school children abandoning their desks to protest about climate change)? Will they refuse to accept any home delivery made by a diesel powered van? Might they possibly abandon their smartphones? Probably not – but they may turn vegan to avoid the dreaded red meat (130g CO2e for 100g of beef) and will no doubt continue to protest.



This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, June 2019.

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