Jun 20, 2019

Axios Future

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 954 words, <4-minute read.

  • Update on our survey last week: 80.8% of respondents said they love the word count. Thanks for your feedback — and look out for more questions soon!

What should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com or the rest of the Future team: Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The climate stakes of speed

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, Erica writes.

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 tonnes 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 tonnes in 2017. The U.S. Postal Service emitted about 4.3 million metric tonnes 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 tonnes 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

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

  • 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 delivery for non-members who are willing to pay a flat fee of $9.99.

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.

2. The rare earths brawl

Photo: Joker/Alexander Stein/ullstein bild/Getty

In 2010, China and Japan got into a mighty fishing kerfuffle, and Beijing responded by halting exports of rare earth minerals, elements crucial to a slew of military and commercial technologies. The world shuddered, since China produced more than 90% of the world supply.

But then new mining projects sprung up elsewhere, and China, rather than lose its market dominance, lifted the export ban.

  • Today, China is again raising the threat of a rare earths cutoff, this time linked to its trade brinkmanship with the U.S.
  • Again, new supplies are being studied elsewhere, including in the U.S. Experts believe that China will again back off.
  • But this time, China may not retreat as quickly as in 2010, says Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"China is trying to develop its own micro-electronics industry. They may decide, 'We can use all these rare earths ourselves, and not export them,'" Rasser tells Axios.

The bottom line: Experts say that, even at top speed, it would take five or more years to develop sufficient outside supply of the 17 rare earth elements. A U.S.–China trade deal will probably tamp down the rare earth threats. But in the long term, says Rasser, China is likely to dial back the exports in order to supply its own companies.

3. The problem with "deadheading"

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

Alejandro Henao, a researcher for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, studies how ride-hailing may be changing our traffic patterns. One thrust is whether the business generally reduces driving, as Uber and Lyft champions claim.

What Henao found: Companies like Uber and Lyft appear to vastly increase miles driven, according to a paper he co-authored last year (h/t E. Tammy Kim).

What happened: Henao did his research in Denver, driving for Uber and Lyft himself. He made 416 rides and found that the problem is "deadheading," a term of art for the time Uber and Lyft drivers spend cruising before finding a customer.

  • When you account for deadheading, Henao said, ride-hailing accounts for an 83% increase in how many miles would have been driven had Uber and Lyft not existed.
4. Worthy of your time

Photo: VCG/Getty

Let robots do all the work (Annie Lowrey — The Atlantic)

The changing Big Tech conversation (Nick Johnston, Scott Rosenberg — Axios) (podcast)

The bidding war for starter homes (Ben Casselman, Conor Dougherty — NYT)

Fake businesses litter Google maps (Rob Copeland, Katherine Bindley — WSJ)

Netflix battles Tencent in Asia (Marimi Kishimoto, Jun Suzuki — Nikkei Asian Review)

5. 1 Farage thing: The $440 milkshake

Farage, wearing the milkshake. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty

Last month, Paul Crowther, a bespectacled former employee of Sky network, doused British politician Nigel Farage with a $6.50 banana and salted caramel milkshake in the English city of Newcastle.

On Tuesday, a judge ordered Crowther to pay £520 (about $650) in damages, including £239 for Farage's lapel microphone, plus his dry cleaning and distress, reports the Guardian's Josh Halliday.

  • Immediately after the May 20 incident, Farage was caught on mike grousing that his security should have spotted and fended off the coming milkshaking, a more or less traditional British form of political speech.
  • Crowdfunding efforts to "Get Paul Crowther his milkshake money back" have raised nearly £4,000.

Go deeper: Watch the video