Technology & Science·What on Earth?

Zero-emissions deliveries: Getting the goods with less enviro-guilt

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the growing interest in zero-emissions delivery vehicles, how much power the sun actually produces and why Andrew Scheer might have benefited from a better climate policy.

Also: A look at solar power's awesome potential

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! 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:

  • Zero-emissions deliveries: Getting the goods with less enviro-guilt 
  • Let the sunshine in: A look at solar power's massive potential
  • The federal Conservative Party needs a proper climate policy: Don Pittis

Zero-emissions deliveries: Getting the goods with less enviro-guilt

(Louis-Étienne Doré)

Once Halloween is over, expect to be inundated with Christmas displays signalling that the year's biggest shopping season has commenced, both in-store and online. 

All that shopping generates a huge carbon footprint. In September, internet retail giant Amazon disclosed that it generated 44.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide last year, or close to the total emissions of Sweden or Denmark.

Part of the issue is that Amazon delivers an estimated 10 billion items a year via carbon-spewing planes, trucks and vans. But the problem isn't limited to Amazon. More and more companies are jostling to sell online and ship everything from groceries to mattresses.

In Canada, freight is the fastest-growing segment within the transportation sector, accounting for 10.5 per cent of the country's emissions in 2015, according to the Pembina Institute.

"We're seeing a greater rise in e-commerce, same-day delivery and consumer preferences for fast, convenient and free shipping," said Carolyn Kim, director of transportation and urban solutions at Pembina, a Canadian think-tank focused on energy. "So what we're noticing is there's more urban freight activities or trucks on the road."

Amazon has acknowledged the problem and recently made a commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2040, partly by cutting emissions from shipping — the company ordered 100,000 electric vans that will start making deliveries in 2021.

At least one Canadian city is also looking at zero-emissions delivery as a solution. In September, the City of Montreal launched Project Colibri, an initiative that aims to encourage companies to make the "last mile" of their deliveries using electric cargo bikes. It has created a special hub at a former bus station where goods and parcels can be transferred to the bikes from larger trucks.

It's a concept that has already been successfully tested in some European cities, such as Paris. In other cities, deliveries are sometimes made from similar hubs on foot, using dollies.

Kim said in Europe, cities are spurring zero-emissions deliveries with policies such as ultra-low-emissions zones, where vehicles are either banned or forced to pay a fee if they don't meet strict emissions regulations. 

She added that we also need to start talking about infrastructure to support zero-emissions delivery vehicles, such as electric charging stations.

"Cities and policy practitioners need to be thinking about how to manage freight and goods movement as a part of their broader transportation planning efforts," Kim said.

In the meantime, here are some tips on how to minimize your carbon footprint when shopping online.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

A number of you responded by email to Emily Chung's piece last week on palm oil in Halloween treats.

"Sustainable Halloween treats would also not be wrapped in PLASTIC!" said Abbey Huggan.

Erwin Thiessen said, "You missed a significant opportunity to highlight the harm of the dairy industry's effect on the environment and milk products in Halloween treats. By adding vegan Halloween options, you would have highlighted a strong environmental message that the dairy industry and animal products contribute a massive toll on the environment during Halloween as well."

Lindsay Zalot weighed in with a pretty novel suggestion. Rather than hand out sweets, "some communities offer swim/skate passes, like the City of Burlington [Ontario]. I have given them out, explained what they are, and kids were excited to receive them. They will definitely get lots of candy anyway, and a small, five-sheet paper booklet that encourages healthy habits beats chocolate in my books any day!"

Email us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: The power potential of solar energy

Our ability to convert the sun's rays into electricity is not a new phenomenon. But as the world moves to decarbonize, we are investing more in solar power, which is both cheap and plentiful. Just how plentiful? Let's put it this way: We could meet all of our energy needs from the sun alone without coming close to exhausting the available solar power. While challenges remain (battery power and dismissive politicians being the main ones), the potential is huge.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Would a better climate policy have helped Andrew Scheer?

(Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

CBC business columnist Don Pittis writes that if this week's Canadian election result is any indication, the second-place Conservatives need to come up with a more substantial climate policy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a difficult task ahead of him, running the country with a minority government. But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer may face an even tougher challenge.

Whether it's Scheer or someone else who leads the charge when the current minority government falls, the Conservatives' predicament is how to formulate a climate change policy that will satisfy both its base and the rest of the country.

Interpreting what voters really meant after any election is an inexact science. But the growth in green voters, and the growing public concern over climate change, is being read by many analysts as evidence that any party needs a credible environmental plan if it wants to run the country.

"This should be the last election that any party in this country believes it can win without having a serious plan for climate change," said political columnist Chantal Hébert, a regular on The National's At Issue panel, during CBC's election night broadcast.

She noted that the popular mood has transformed since 2008, when Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's "Green Shift" plan was defeated by Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Since then, the issue has moved from fringe to mainstream with the power to swing national votes.

"If the issue was bigger this year than a decade ago, when Dion lost, it will be larger in the next election," Hébert said.

Elsewhere in the country, politicians of all stripes seem to be taking this green tilt seriously. The day after the federal vote, Blaine Higgs, New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative premier, announced plans to create a provincial carbon tax that falls in line with Ottawa's requirements. 

Such a move would be harder for Scheer, having taken such a strong line against carbon pricing during the election campaign. 

It must be galling to some Conservative Party strategists to think that had they adopted something so simple as their own working carbon tax, they might have derailed strategic voting in favour of the Liberals.

Currently, the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan and Alberta is suffering from a downturn. It is impossible to know whether that is just a temporary swing or a long-term trend as the world tries to use less carbon.

Either way, there is every reason to think that with technology and industry, Canada's fossil fuel-producing regions can continue to be a global energy powerhouse.

A Conservative climate plan does not need to transform the economy overnight. Oil and gas will still be needed. But by developing a business-friendly climate policy good enough to convince independent observers it will help Canada meet its targets, the Conservative Party could beat Trudeau at his own game.

Don Pittis

Stay in touch!

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

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.