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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With its acceleration of Prime shipping from two days to one, Amazon established a new normal. Soon after, Walmart and Target came out with their own super-speedy shipping options.

Why it matters: Flying, trucking and delivering millions of packages a day comes with a cost — as shoppers demand faster and faster speed, there has been a sharp environmental impact.

The big picture: Consumers have gotten hooked on speed — and the efficiencies that e-commerce injected into retail are getting erased because now there are more deliveries of smaller numbers of packages.

With this trend, emissions have grown:

  • The annual sustainability report from UPS, one of the biggest enablers of the e-commerce boom, says it emitted 13.8 million metric tons of CO2 while delivering 5.1 billion packages in 2017, by ground and air.
  • Emissions from FedEx, the other major shipper, were 15.1 million metric tons in 2017. The U.S. Postal Service emitted about 4.3 million metric tons of CO2 in 2016. (Numbers from both include all mail, including e-commerce and personal packages and letters.)

Together, that's equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of just over 7 million cars, per an EPA calculator. It's almost the combined total number of cars in the states of Illinois and Tennessee. It's also about 0.5% of the total 6 billion metric tons of U.S. CO2 emissions per year. That's "not huge, but it's big. And it's growing," says Costa Samaras of Carnegie Mellon University.

On top of UPS, USPS and FedEx, many other players in parcel delivery — including Amazon itself — are adding to the total impact.

"Nobody is looking at the environmental footprint of being consumers with all of this convenience"
— Beth Davis-Sramek, professor of logistics, Auburn University

The backdrop: In theory, e-commerce is good for the environment, says Don Mackenzie, who leads the University of Washington's Sustainable Transportation Lab. Instead of a neighborhood worth of people driving to stores in their personal cars to shop, one truck can deliver everything. But that calculus is changing.

"There are climate benefits to e-commerce, but those disappear as delivery gets faster and faster," says Miguel Jaller, a professor at UC Davis. "It goes against everything they have been achieving in terms of efficiency."

  • Now, flashy memberships that offer free, fast shipping regardless of the size of a cart have eliminated shoppers' incentive and the shippers' ability to bundle goods. They're instead ordering a steady stream of packages to their doorsteps, pushing e-commerce and logistics companies to keep up by adding trucks, jets and even air hubs.

Amazon started it with Prime, which offers free shipping on 100 million products, whether you order a cartful of things or just one box of tissues. Amazon's retail rivals, Target and Walmart, have done the same:

  • Walmart has come out with free next-day delivery for orders of $35 or more.
  • Target has long had a $99 membership program that offers free same-day delivery, and it has just announced same-day for non-members who are willing to pay a flat fee of $9.99.

The increasing warehouse space required to support the barrage of orders also has an impact.

  • E-commerce companies are building more and more warehouses, particularly on the outskirts of cities, so they can cut delivery times to a few hours. About 255 million square feet of warehouse space is under construction in the U.S., per a new CBRE report — and all of it needs light, heat and air conditioning, notes CMU's Samaras.

And there's more: The packing material that goes into delivery boxes is a major driver of the global plastics crisis, says Axios energy columnist Amy Harder.

But, but, but: There are ways to curb e-commerce's hit to the environment.

  • Drone delivery uses less energy than vehicles, Samaras tells Axios. "They're super-light and charged by electricity, and electricity is getting cleaner." Both Amazon and Walmart have filed a slew of drone patents.
  • Electrifying truck fleets can also make a dent, and many shippers, like Amazon and UPS, are adding EVs to cut emissions, but drones are still the cleanest delivery method, Samaras says.

In a statement to Axios, Amazon said it is committed to bring down its contributions to climate change:

  • "We’ve eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials and avoided 500 million shipping boxes, and with anticipated and continued progress in electric vehicles, aviation bio fuels, and renewable energy we have set an ambitious goal to reach 50% of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030."

Target said it aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 30% by 2030.

Walmart did not respond to an email. Its 2018 report on sustainability set a goal to reduce emissions 18% from 2015 to 2025.

Go deeper

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID-related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.