Environment Forum

True or false? Online shopping greener than the mall

Mario Gagarin, who works for United Parcel Service, balances packages as he makes deliveries in Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, July 22, 2010. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang  Unless you’re in the habit of purchasing bulk orders when you shop online, you can ditch the notion you are helping the environment by skipping a trip to the mall, a recent study has found.

New research by The Institution of Engineering and Technology at Newcastle University in Britain shows online shoppers must order more than 25 items to have any less impact on the environment than traditional shopping due to resources required for shipping and handling.

The study looked at “rebound” effects — or unintended side-effects of policies designed to reduce carbon emissions — of activities that are commonly thought to be green.

Working from home is another commonly mistaken “green” activity, the study said. This practice actually increases home energy use by as much as 30 per cent, and can lead to people moving further from the workplace, stretching urban sprawl and automobile use which increases pollution, the study said.

“Policy makers must do their homework to ensure that rebound effects do not negate the positive benefits of their policy initiatives and simply move carbon emissions from one sector to another,” said Professor Phil Blythe, Chair of the IET Transport Policy Panel and Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University that produced the report.

“taking cars off the road”, or climate tokenism?

There’s no shortage of references these days in corporate and government reports to earnest, new steps to fight climate change. Often they promise to make carbon emissions cuts equivalent to taking millions of cars off the road…

For example, take Europe’s fourth biggest single source of carbon emissions, Britain’s Drax coal plant. It said in March that as a result of efficiency improvements it had cut carbon emissions equivalent to taking 195,000 cars off the road.  But of course that was a cut against a theoretical projection of rising emissions — not an absolute cut.

Take a similar announcement from Canada this week. The oil industry in Alberta is busy trying to extract oil from tar sands. That is a far more polluting, energy-intensive way than just sucking the stuff out of oil wells, because steam must first be injected into the sand to make the oil flow. Now Alberta is experimenting with a technology, called carbon capture and storage, with three test projects which by 2015 would “achieve annual carbon dioxide reductions equivalent to taking about a million vehicles off the road”, the province says.

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