Holiday Shoppers, the Planet Needs You to Take It Easy With the Next-Day Shipping
By Jeff Turrentine
Back in 1966, the editors of Time indulged in a long-honored magazine tradition and published an essay in which experts made predictions about the future—in this case, the year 2000. By then, these experts prognosticated, a typical shopper "should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room." But even so, they predicted, "remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop." Why? Because shoppers "like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds."
What these futurists failed to anticipate was that technology and capitalism, working in tandem, would end up not only catering to but actually intensifying the basic human desire to get whatever one wants while exerting as little physical energy as possible. These days, pretty much everybody with access to a computer and a credit card shops online, for everything from large household appliances to clothes to (yes) grapefruit. And the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is, unsurprisingly, the busiest time of year for internet retailers, who expect to rake in more than $123 billion this year—up from $106 billion in 2017.
Most of these purchases will arrive at consumers' doors in boxes, making much of their trip from warehouses and distribution centers via truck or van. UPS says that its famously brown-uniformed drivers delivered 700 million packages during the 2017 holiday season—more than two packages for every man, woman, and child in the country. For its part, the U.S. Postal Service expects to make about 900 million deliveries between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day—50 million more than it made last year during the same period.
The somewhat magical ability to press a button, wait a day, and then have somebody at your door handing you the thing you wanted makes it easy to ignore the fact that all of those trucks and vans bringing those packages emit a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many companies, including IKEA and UPS, are already taking steps to reduce the pollution of their delivery services by moving to electric vehicle fleets, and that's certainly a positive development. But according to Miguel Jaller, an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of California, Davis, we need to address another factor in the equation: the mind-set and habits of consumers.
"While online shopping is definitely convenient, and there are many positive things that come with it, there's a price to the environment," said Jaller, who writes frequently about sustainable transportation systems. The convenience factor is causing us to consume more, but that's not the whole picture: We've now come to expect things like two-day shipping and no-questions-asked returns policies as consumer rights to be bestowed at minimal cost. Such thinking, Jaller said, keeps us from making a proper accounting of the externalized environmental costs incurred when retailers must prioritize speed and absolute customer satisfaction over efficiency—which, alas, is pretty much always.
The environmental cost of free two-day shipping www.youtube.com
This 2017 Climate Lab video, in which Jaller has a brief cameo, breaks down the problem. Online shopping actually has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional shopping at a brick-and-mortar store—until expedited shipping enters the picture. In their efforts to bring you your new smartphone case or pashmina scarf in less than 48 hours, retailers disrupt various processes designed to consolidate orders and maximize efficiencies. If a truck has to leave its distribution center only half full in order to meet a delivery deadline, it usually will. Very often that means dispatching two trucks to carry the load of one truck—and emitting twice the exhaust in the process.
And what if the pashmina scarf turns out to be the wrong color? You can almost always send it back to the seller at low or no cost. That's another truck delivery that needs to be made, going in the opposite direction. Are you going to order new items in different colors that are more to your liking? Of course you are! Two-day delivery is free! And so another truck is filled—perhaps to capacity, perhaps to half-capacity—to bring you your second purchase in just as speedy a fashion as the first. In this way, consumers are now using vehicle fleets in ways they were never meant to be used: as a means of trying on clothes and testing out goods.
What started out as a cool-seeming perk offered by a handful of major online retailers has today, thanks to market forces, become the industry standard. Companies "are caught up in a game where they're competing with each other," said Jaller. "And the way they're competing is by trying to outdo each other in offering this fast, almost free, delivery service. So they're incentivizing bad behavior on the consumer side."
Jaller applauds the steps that companies are taking to maximize fuel efficiency in their fleets, from discouraging left turns—a practice that UPS says cuts idling time and reduces its vehicles' CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons each year—to truck platooning, in which communications and sensor technology allows trucks to follow one another closely but safely on the highway, reducing their aerodynamic drag and boosting their mileage.
He worries, however, that "we're losing a lot of these gains and efficiencies at the delivery point: trucks idling while waiting for an establishment to be ready to receive the goods, or needing to go around the block several times because there's not enough parking." He's hopeful that more companies will come to see the wisdom of moving to an electric delivery fleet, now that so many zero-emissions vans and small trucks boast ranges of more 100 miles. (Studies show that 90 percent of parcel deliveries are made within a 100-mile range.)
But the biggest changes will be seen, Jaller said, when consumers "change their behavior to slow down companies' operations, so that they can be more efficient and optimize what they already have," instead of needing to build more warehouses, set up new delivery points, and buy more trucks—all just to make sure that you can get your stuff within 36 hours of ordering it.
So this holiday season, you might consider giving the planet a lovely gift: ordering multiple items per shipment (instead of just one at a time), double-checking sizes and colors before clicking "send," and opting for five-day delivery. This gift may seem small, but it'll mean a lot.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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