Online shopping and telecommuting may not reduce carbon emissions

September 17, 2010

Online shopping and telecommuting may reduce carbon emissions A new report from Newcastle University says that online shopping and telecommuting could be having the opposite effect on the environment than intended.  Instead of reducing carbon emissions these activities may actually be increasing them.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) at Newcastle released the report that looked at the “rebound effect” of practices that are supposed to be green. 

Rebound effects are the unintended consequences of policies that are designed to reduce emissions, but on closer analysis can move the emission’s production elsewhere or lessen the positive impact.

Working from home was found to increase energy use by 30 percent increasing emissions.  Another problem with telecommuting is that it could increase urban sprawl as people feel free to move farther from their work.

The study found that environmental savings can be achieved if online shopping replaces 3.5 traditional shopping trips, or if 25 orders are delivered at the same time, or, if the distance travelled to where the purchase is made is more than 50km (31 miles).

This study was conducted in Britain.  It would be interesting if the study were conducted internationally to see if the results would be the same.  For instance different countries or areas of a country have different cultures of transportation.  Some countries have excellent mass transit systems that are easy to use and cover extensive areas making it a better choice for travel than automobiles.  In other countries more people walk or ride bicycles as opposed to traveling by car.  In yet other spread out rural areas cars are the only way to travel.

Would a similar study in America show similar results or would different areas of the country show up differently?

Whatever the final results would be, conducting this study in other areas could prove beneficial for local policy planning.  What works in New York City or Boston won’t work for New Orleans or Jackson, Mississippi. 

As Professor Phil Blythe, Chair of the IET Transport Policy Panel and Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University, which produced the report, says:

“Our report highlights two important messages for policy makers. Firstly, climate change is a real threat to our planet, so we must not get overwhelmed by the task and use rebound effects as an excuse not to act.
“Secondly, 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.”

Statewide or national policies don’t always work everywhere.  In order to optimize our approach to climate change, we need to fine tune each area like you optimize the different parts of a bicycle – just the right frame, then the right wheels, then the gears, and the brakes.

Optimization for mountain rural communities will be very different than for dense urban areas.  Or will it?  Until more wide ranging studies like this one are conducted we just won’t know.

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