On Wednesday I made it to GUIR for the first time in a long time (last semester I had a time conflict), and listened to an interesting talk about designing interfaces for autistic kids. I also saw J&A's baby for the first time! Later that day, I taught week two of American foxtrot for UCBD, and even convinced my friends in my databases project group to come to the lesson! I danced a bit during general dancing, but regretted it later when my foot ached because of it.
On Thursday, I went to a talk by Alastair Iles, a postdoc in the Energy and Resources Group and a member of TaSED, about the sustainability (and in particular, the carbon emissions) of global distribution channels.
He first talked about food distribution, introducing the concept of "food miles" as a measure of the distances and environmental costs embedded in agriculture (which reminded me of sustainability's "ecological footprint"). Fun facts: food miles grew by 50% between 1978 and 1998. In 1996, 93% of the U.S's fresh produce was carried by trucks. 5.5 kg of carbon is emitted for every 1 kg of carrots shipped from South Africa to England. This assumes point-to-point distribution, but in reality most food travels farther because it goes through central processing plants. Produce grown in Atlanta is flown 2000 miles to Maryland to be processed, before being shipped back to Atlanta!
He also talked briefly about the shipping of cut flowers (given the season), though much less research has been done on this industry than on food. UPS distributes 100 million flowers for Valentine's day. The U.S. imports $700 million worth of flowers annually, especially from Colombia but also from Uruguay, Kenya, Brazil, and others. It's actually faster to fly flowers from international sources than to truck them domestically.
He then discussed the distribution of express packages, which has grown hugely in the last 15 years. FedEx ships 3 million packages a day, which has actually been down the last two years because of the recession. It uses a "hub and spoke" distribution system, like the airlines. Some packages are transported only by truck, but most have at least some time in the air. There is no reporting at all on the air pollution, energy use, and carbon emissions of all of this air freight, which must be very high, given the volume of packages sent by air. FedEx claims to be environmentally responsible, buying more efficient planes and hybrid-electric trucks, and using recycled material in packaging, but the wasted resources from missed deliveries and re-deliveries alone must be enormous.
So what are the causes of all this long-distance freight? Airlines make a lot of money in air freight and encourage it as much as possible, markets have shifted from "local" to "national" in the inexorable drive for "efficiency" and economies of scale, and consumers expect seasonal items like strawberries and roses to be available year-round.
Governments are also culpable: they give huge subsidies and tax breaks to transportation companies. (In Britain, aviation fuel is not taxed at all!) They also generally provide free access to the road system, even though large trucks are responsible for more wear on highways than everything else combined. Many governments are also part of the WTO, which supports the elimination of trade restrictions and pressures developing countries into opening markets in first-world foods and luxuries like flowers, despite the clear environmental costs, degradation of the local economy, and social consequences of long-distance trade.
Solutions to the environmental stresses of international trade could be technical - more efficient fuel, scheduling, or packaging - with no change in supply or demand. Governments such as ours generally push for technical solutions; for example, Bush is supporting a voluntary program for freight companies to be more efficient. This ignores any social impacts, though, as well as impacts on local economies and self-sufficiency.
More systematic solutions - such as using different transit modes, streamlining distribution, removing freight subsidies, and imposing taxes based on distance traveled or environmental cost - may be more effective.
We also have to ask ourselves what kind of economy and environment we want to live in. FedEx says it reduces transportation costs a lot, but fails to mention the environmental costs of this. Should such an omission be allowed in our ideal economic system? Perhaps it would be most sustainable to go back to "inefficient" or "primitive" local distribution. (Of course, this can also be environmentally intensive, depending on how it's done.) And perhaps consumer expectations of overnight packages, highly-processed foods, and year-round produce and flowers need to change.