The Unfortunate Side-Effect of Buying From the Internet

04/17/2015 09:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Big industry, transport and air travel are the great culprits of climate change and, indeed, the amount of CO2 emissions from these activities can definitely be said to lie at the heart of anthropogenic causes of alterations to the Earth's climate patterns. Climate change is such a massive issue that thinking about strategies for combating its effects -- or even trying to prevent them -- can be frustrating as well as daunting. National and international organizations and agencies such as the United Nations have been coming together in annual meetings to discuss how to handle the situation. The approach they habitually rely on is that of finding big solutions for a big problem.

So far, as many of us have been voicing increasingly loudly, this does not seem to have yielded very many appreciable results. Luckily, there is an ever increasing number of people that are hard at work finding solutions for problems that are small-scale and often geographically localized. Think of transport, for example. Now narrow the focus down to a single activity, parcel transport for online purchases.

I was involved in an e-commerce project for a big company, when I came across the data: E-commerce has been growing at a remarkable rate all across the planet, especially in the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, the side-effect has been the equally remarkable increase of CO2 emissions. Despite a few studies in which shopping online can be seen as the better choice, in terms of carbon footprint, as compared with taking your car and driving to and from the various places you shop from, the overall effect has been shown to be a definite rise in emissions.

The largest parcel couriers have been actively seeking and employing strategies for reducing their carbon footprint. These have been of two kinds, the first being that of acquiring new generation vehicles with better fuel efficiency, also in terms of emissions. The second strategy typically involves offsetting their emissions. "Offsetting" means compensating for the impact of CO2 emissions by adhering to a project that either generates oxygen -- like a reforestation or afforestation project -- or produces renewable energy. These are called "offset projects."

While at first glance this might look like a sort of palliative solution -- after all those CO2 emissions are still going up in the air -- there is some good in it: Many of these projects would not have the necessary funds to survive without the input of all those companies that, for one reason or other, want to gain green credentials. So far so good. However, while the large parcel companies have been striving to do good, the many others remaining have not, in many cases because they cannot afford the necessary changes. The good news is that we can do something about this.

There are solutions that address this very issue. The project I'm involved with, for example, is a system that calculates the CO2 emissions of your home delivery and the cost for compensating, which is generally equivalent to a coffee or cappuccino, and then you get the option to give the calculated amount to an offset project you like. The idea is that the best way to allow people to do something to help the environment, is to give them the option when they are doing something they do in their everyday life, for example shopping on the Internet.

This approach originates from the "nudge" principle. To "nudge" means to devise instruments that allow people to follow through with what they want to do but are often "distracted" into not doing. And the result is that even though work and family don't leave us much time to be the activists we'd like to be, we can still do our bit!

It is empowering to think that sometimes we can actually take things into our own hands and tackle even such gigantic problems as climate change! In fact, I might be slightly optimistic, but I firmly believe that the more of us that think of instruments and solutions that are simple to apply and, most of all, simple for people to take up, the closer we will get to more sustainable living.