Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

As Pollution From Online Shopping Grows, London Funds a Solution

  • Deliveries in electric vans instead of diesel slash emissions
  • Posten Norge and Alibaba making electric delivery vehicles

London’s delivery companies are experimenting with electric vehicles to curb the smog spewed by vans distributing parcels packed with goods purchased on the Internet.

The U.K. capital’s transport authority is catalyzing the transition from diesel to battery-powered vehicles by funding Gnewt Cargo Ltd., which operates London’s largest all electric delivery fleet. Gnewt is part owned by shipping DX Group Ltd, counting TNT Express NV and Hermes Parcelnet Ltd. among its customers.

With their emissions-free electric motors silently navigating 20,000 packages a day through London streets, Gnewt could also deliver a breath of fresh air to Europe’s biggest city. The government says London’s pollution levels will probably breach European Union limits until at least 2030, a problem the Royal College of Physicians estimates causes 40,000 people a year to die early.

London expects a 20 percent increase in van traffic within the next 15 years traceable solely to things bought from the Web. Gnewt’s vans, which also use centralized depots to reduce the number of journeys, is seen as one solution to curb the smog and traffic generated by online-order deliveries.

“My clients send me all of their freight in bulk through the night, and then we will sort it and do the last mile in town with zero emissions,” Sam Clarke, founder and director of Gnewt Cargo, said in an interview.

London isn’t alone in battling smog stemming from home shopping -- and the costs in financial and environmental terms of the last mile that packages travel before they tumble into the hands of consumers. Amazon.com Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Google Inc. are testing airborne drones, and startups Starship Technologies Ltd. in the U.K. and Dispatch Robotics Inc. in the U.S. are working with delivery robots.

The bars above the dotted line failed to meet the annual mean objective for NO2 in 2014.
The bars above the dotted line failed to meet the annual mean objective for NO2 in 2014.
Source: King’s College London

In Norway, the government postal service Posten Norge AS has bought about 450 alternative fueled vans since 2011 including Renault SA’s Kangoo ZE, Peugeot SA’s Electric and Nissan Motor Co.’s e-NV200. Electric vehicles for delivery have caught the eye of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., which controls more than half China’s online shopping market and is working with electric vehicle manufacturer Kandi Technologies Group Inc. to bolster use of the technology.

“Traffic jams, air pollution are pushing gasoline-powered cars into a dead end,” Kandi President Hu Xiaoming said in an interview. “The development of data technologies is providing us with an enormous opportunity to make electric cars much easier to use.”

The appetite for online shopping is also growing as developing nations connect to the web. Online shopping in China alone may reap sales of 7.5 trillion yuan ($1.16 trillion) by 2018, according to iResearch Consulting Group.

Smog has is also becoming a political issue. London wants to become an incubator for solutions like the one offered by Gnewt, whose name means “Green New Transport.” Sadiq Khan, who won the city’s mayoral election last week, called dirty air “our most pressing environmental challenge” and promised an ultra-low-emissions zone for the city that would limit truck traffic and an expansion of the electric-vehicle charging network.

“We need a radical mayor in the positive sense of the word” to address the issue of air pollution, Khan told voters before the election.

All those online purchases need to be delivered, and London already is feeling the impact.
Congestion from delivery vehicles rose 3.4 percent from 2008 to 2014, driving pollution levels past European Union limits. More than 60 percent of the delivery vans on the street are less than a quarter full, according to Transport for London, the city authority governing streets and railways.

Between 1949 and 2012, investment in roads and vehicles led to a 10-fold rise in the distance traveled in the U.K.
Between 1949 and 2012, investment in roads and vehicles led to a 10-fold rise in the distance traveled in the U.K.
Source: Royal College of Physicians.

Using Gnewt Cargo, Hermes Parcelnet cut the number of miles it traveled in a year by 80 percent, achieved a 71 percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions per parcel and a 67 percent drop in carbon dioxide pollution, according to a study by Westminster University for Gnewt Cargo. 

“These are huge savings, and it’s demonstrating to wider London that it’s doable,” Clarke said. “There’s no reason why those figures couldn’t be replicated on a grander scale.” 

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