Air fryers, massage guns, wall maps of Scotland and under-desk cycling machines – a mere sample of the many items purchased by my colleagues and I over the lockdowns. Through the luxury of Amazon Prime, we can even, for no additional cost, have these 'essentials' in our hands before 10pm the same day! With consumer behaviours already changing pre-pandemic, use of online shopping and delivery services has been magnified to unparalleled levels in the past year and a half. But have you ever considered that the simple click of "confirm and pay" could contribute to significant environmental impacts? The renewable energy sector has...

So-called ‘last mile’ deliveries - the movement of goods from a transport hub to their final destination – are currently mainly dominated by large vans that travel in and out of cities with high volumes of parcels and smaller diesel vans operating around the cities and towns. This has had a significant contribution to carbon emissions, not to mention the impact on urban air quality and traffic congestion.

After delaying release from December last year, the Government this month launched its Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which sets out the policies and plans needed to tackle the UK’s largest emitting sector (responsible for 27% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions in 2019). Under the Transport Decarbonisation Plan it remains a strategic priority of the Government to decarbonise how we receive our goods and, in particular, it includes a specific commitment to "take forward measures to transform" last mile deliveries. There are a number of proposed regulatory, infrastructural and technological solutions set out in the Government's proposed policies to achieving this.

  • Current volumes of vehicle journeys - the Government will consult on near-term carbon savings by reducing the number of vehicle movements as early as later in 2021. While this timescale is tight, the Government believes that new technology and smarter regulation may offer significant opportunities for reducing high carbon delivery traffic.
  • Dynamic kerbspace is one opportunity but this must be balanced alongside other proposals in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan such as the use of electric vehicles.
  • Electric vehicles including e-cargo bikes for last mile deliveries will reduce carbon emissions over time, but only at the pace that the electricity supply is decarbonised. It is important to consider the impact of increasing electricity demand on the charging infrastructure which would be required to support such solutions in the already contested space available on the kerb and in city centres.
  • The Government acknowledges in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan that barriers exist in infrastructure provision and the consumer experience. It is therefore important to understand what regulation would work most effectively and balance the policies with real-life practical implications. The Government acknowledges that engagement with key stakeholders, including the renewable energy sector, is vital in bringing proposals to fruition.
    • Road and non-road based zero emissions logistics solutions is another opportunity. The Government believes that a shift from road and aviation to rail would reduce congestion and emissions. Though potentially viable, this will require huge investment in new infrastructure to be in place where rail stops and last mile deliveries begin.
    • Consolidation centres might also reduce vehicle numbers. The Government plans to research the legal and practical issues around this for the majority of urban deliveries. Existing pilots in the 'Solent Mobility Zone' in England and Mayfair in London will gather data and pilot franchising delivery services to promote the development of macro and micro consolidation.
    • Consolidating transportation of goods into less regular deliveries may, for example, suggest the need for larger transport vehicles. While electric solutions for light vehicles are already a viable technology, the solution to fuelling HGVs for the last-mile transport of heavy goods is a longer-term project. The decarbonising impact of consolidation centres is therefore not so clear, at least in the short term.
    • Delivery management is also generally acknowledged across the policies as needed for "a fragmented industry" currently with many small operators. The Government suggests that use of AI and data tools could improve efficiency in the freight sector thus cutting emissions. While this seems pragmatic, this has to be considered against the Government's proposed timescales and legally binding net zero targets.

    At the moment the Transport Decarbonisation Plan presents a high level overview of transport decarbonisation across the sector with only tasters of the detailed policies that will be required. In tackling last mile deliveries, if the movement of vehicles is to be limited as early this year, the industry will be seeking greater certainty as to the policy the Government intends to implement to support its proposed solutions. If there is one outcome that is unlikely it is a public willing to return to 14-day delivery timescales, and policy prescriptions will need to be developed with that ambition in mind.