Science·What on Earth?

Less smoke on the water: How ship operators are charting a greener course

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how to make online shopping less environmentally harmful, and how ship operators are trying to green their fleets.

Also: Online shopping is wasteful - but it doesn't have to be

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, friends. This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Online shopping doesn't really click with the environment
  • Ancient and endangered forests, at a glance
  • Charting a greener course for ships
  • Let's take a moment to appreciate nature's beauty, shall we?

Online shopping is wasteful - but it doesn't have to be

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images/CBC)

We are in that dark time of year that surrounds Black Friday. Hordes of shoppers will invade malls across the continent in search of "amazing!" deals — and those too timid or busy to physically join the fray will do it virtually, by shopping online.

In this piece, I laid out the environmental effects of online shopping.

Filling and checking out a virtual shopping cart can be greener than doing the real thing because you're not getting in your car, driving to the mall and then circling for an hour looking for parking. But shopping online has the potential to be worse because of the packaging (bags within bags inside boxes within boxes) and the array of emissions-spewing modes of transport involved.

There are ways retailers could encourage online shoppers to make greener choices. A 2016 experiment found that roughly 90 per cent of customers were willing to pay extra to offset the carbon emissions from shipping when it was the default setting setting at the checkout. When it wasn't the default option, 40 per cent still picked it.

Another experiment in the same study found about 20 per cent of customers were willing to pick no-rush shipping if they were offered either a $1 credit or carbon offsets as an incentive.

Customers can also take more personal responsibility. The simplest solution would be to simply buy less stuff. Barring that, here are some things to consider that might make your online shopping — not just on Black Friday, but all year long — a little greener.

Plan ahead and buy less. If you need an item on a regular basis, get a subscription. That way, the retailer can arrange for the most efficient delivery.

Don't check out your online shopping cart until it's as full as possible. One shipment obviously generates fewer emissions than five.

Avoid two-day, same-day or any expedited shipping, even if it's free. These scenarios result in more air shipments, emptier trucks, less efficient routes and more emissions.

Have your stuff delivered somewhere safe. Delivery attempts that were unsuccessful because you weren't home increase the number of truck trips. If you're not around, can your parcel be delivered to a post office, store or other location?

Avoid unnecessary returns. When buying clothing, don't order multiple sizes when you're not sure which one fits. Don't add items to your cart that you plan to return just to get free shipping. Returns don't just go back the way they came, but often rack up emissions on a long, circuitous journey through global logistics systems.

Reuse and recycle the packaging. This is your chance to get creative!

Emily Chung

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The Big Picture: Ancient and endangered forests

The preservation of our forests is key to containing global carbon emissions. But we also know that it requires vigilance.

For nearly two decades, the Canadian conservation group Canopy has been consulting with businesses to create, in its own words, "sustainable supply chains and foster innovative solutions to environmental challenges." Canopy recently created ForestMapper, an interactive tool that allows you to see changes in tree cover as well as the animal species found in these parts. The map below highlights the oldest and most vulnerable forests around the world.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • While Ontario recently pulled subsidies that encouraged people to buy electric cars, B.C. is redoubling its efforts. This week, the province announced a massive incentive plan that would ensure 10 per cent of all new vehicle sales would be zero-emission vehicles by 2025 — and 100 per cent by 2040.

  • But before we congratulate our fellow Canadians, it's worth citing a recent study that calls out Canada, as well as Russia and China, for climate policies that could lead to global warming well beyond the two-degrees level.

  • They're calling it a "sacred corridor of life." This week, a coalition of South American Indigenous groups presented a plan to the UN Conference on Biodiversity for a 200 million-hectare protected area in the Amazon region. The group is describing the proposed area, which is roughly the size of Mexico, "the world's last great sanctuary for biodiversity."

  • If you follow U.S. politics, you may have seen mention of #GreenNewDeal. It's an effort by rookie House members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to force congressional leadership to introduce a plan to move the country to a low-carbon future — and create millions of jobs in the process.

Making waves by making less pollution

(Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

Most of the talk about how to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector revolves around planes, trains and automobiles. Ships don't figure in the conversation nearly as much.

But that doesn't mean they don't make an environmental mess — or that operators aren't doing something about it.

Most ships use heavy fuel oil, a cheaper, more viscous form of petroleum than what you put in your car. The exhaust is immense. It is estimated that shipping accounts for two per cent of global carbon emissions.

Earlier this year, members of the UN International Maritime Organization, which oversees the shipping industry, agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2050.

One green option gaining steam (pun intended) is wind power, involving rotor sails. The concept was actually developed in the 1920s, but at the time, coal was simply cheaper. Recently, however, the Finnish firm Norsepower has found a way to improve on the technology and installed it on ferries and — irony of ironies — an oil tanker. (This animation shows how it works.)

But shipping isn't the only source of high-seas pollution. For all the romance associated with it, an ocean cruise is a pretty dirty undertaking. According to the German environmental group Nabu, a cruise ship emits as much carbon a day as one million cars.

Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten wants to do something about that. Earlier this week, the company announced it is planning to power its ships with liquified biogas — specifically, a fossil-free fuel derived from dead fish and other organic waste.

Next year, Hurtigruten will introduce its first battery-hybrid powered cruise ship, and by 2021, it plans to operate at least six of its 17 ships with a combination of biogas, liquified natural gas and large batteries.

But there's still much work to do — it is estimated there are more than 300 cruise ships in operation worldwide.

Andre Mayer

Ah, nature

We wanted to end this week's issue with a bit of eye candy. This shot of Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park in B.C. was taken by Evan Mitsui, staff photographer for CBC's The National.

We see many stories about environmental degradation, but there are also positive developments. Earlier this month, the federal and provincial governments pledged a total of $14.6 million to expand protected lands in a part of the Kootenays known as the Darkwoods Conservation Area. It will increase the size of Darkwoods by about 14 per cent and provide greater protection for a number of species at risk, including grizzlies and peregrine falcons.

To see more of Evan's work, visit his Instagram account.

(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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