How many miles do you think your phone has travelled to reach your pocket? Maybe a few thousand?
Looking at the main components which make up the device, the iPhone 6 has a transport footprint at least as great as a 240,000-mile trip to the moon, and most of the way back (Wired, 2016). This reportedly only accounts for just two dozen primary suppliers across three continents; it doesn’t even take into account the entire supply chain.
In this increasingly globalised economy, I’m sat at my desk with a pen from China, tea from Sri Lanka and a phone from Vietnam – blissfully unaware of the sheer amount of miles each item has travelled on its journey to the end consumer.
So what’s the environmental impact of all of this? We know transportation has a damaging effect on the environment, accounting for 14% of global C02 emissions in 2017, according to the Environmental Protect Agency. It also raises other issues, such as poor air quality caused by particulate matter emissions like nitrous oxide – which is recognised as contributing to a number of health issues and harm to the environment.
Is the obvious solution to this environmental issue to localise industries and restrict global trading, thereby reducing transport emissions dramatically? Certain countries are already trying to encourage localisation by implementing import tariffs, such as Japan’s 778% charge on imported rice over their quota.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The world economy has, by and large, benefited enormously from globalisation. It has led to global supply chains, more jobs in assembly lines in low-cost emerging economies, economies of scale due to access to much larger markets, and consumers benefitting from much lower prices for better products.
Even if the intent to use local materials is there, it isn’t always a possibility. For example, lithium is a primary material in batteries used in most electric vehicles and is most commonly imported from Australia or Chile. There is currently exploration into a lithium mine in Cornwall; however, at this early stage, we won’t know if enough lithium could be produced to meet the demand for electric vehicles built in the UK such as the Nissan plant in Sunderland. Therefore, it’s unlikely that the UK will be self-sufficient when it comes to sourcing all the materials needed for electric vehicles any time soon.
But all is not lost, there is an encouraging movement to more environmentally sustainable transport. International logistics firms are already taking advantage of low carbon vehicle technologies to reduce their carbon footprint. UPS has the largest fleet of alternative fuel vehicles, comprising of 4,400 vehicles and claims this has decreased its C02 emissions by 100,000 metric tons. In 2018 Tesla raised the idea of electrification in commercial vehicles to the public with its ‘Semi’ full electric truck – this has since been pre-ordered by DHL to test in metropolitan areas. Firms are also already exploiting the Internet of Things (IoT) to make logistics as seamless as possible, reducing mileage and making freight more cost-effective.
With all of this in mind, we might be looking at the argument for and against our globalised transport networks all wrong. It’s about being smarter about our logistics and taking advantage of technological advances to reduce emissions dramatically. Of course, sourcing local should be used wherever possible, but when it isn’t an option we need to take advantage of this exciting new technology to ensure our international freight it as efficient and low-emission as possible.
We’ll be debating this, among other challenges we face in reducing emissions in commercial, heavy-duty and off-highway vehicles, at the Science Gallery, London, on the 3rd April 2019. The event ‘How low can you go?’ is now sold out.