On any given day in large German cities you’re likely to see the omnipresent black and yellow outfit of workers delivering packages for Deutsche Post, the former German national post delivery service now part of the international mail and package delivery company DHL Group. But rather than riding in a diesel-powered van, an increasing number of these workers whizz silently by on one of the company’s 6,100 e-bikes and 13,500 e-trikes or cargo e-bike—a three-wheeled vehicle that can support a larger load than a normal e-bike. The company has also equipped itself with 23,000 electric delivery vans. It’s all part of an effort to electrify its global fleet to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. So far, Deutsche Post has achieved carbon-free deliveries in about half of its German delivery districts.

It is a transformation that experts have hailed as an example the world can learn from, especially for tackling the tricky problem of “last-mile” deliveries. The last mile—getting packages from a centrally located warehouse or distribution center to customers’ homes—is far more carbon intensive and logistically complicated than other stretches of the transport chain, when products are packed neatly in shipping containers or freight boxes all going to the same location. Emissions from the last-mile delivery can account for as much as 50% of total delivery carbon emissions.

“That final mile delivery is important. After aviation, the electrification of local last mile pickup and delivery and line haul is probably the second biggest piece to the carbon footprint that we have,” says Greg Hewitt, CEO for DHL Express U.S.

As e-commerce has grown, the increase in the amount of carbon emissions resulting from those deliveries has grown alongside it. Demand for last-mile parcel deliveries are estimated to increase by 78% globally by 2030, resulting in greater emissions. With no interventions, experts predict that the carbon emissions from urban delivery traffic by 2030 could jump as much as 32%.

“The last mile can often be the most carbon intensive because of the fragmentation of flows,” says Phillipe Lebeau, a sustainability, mobility, and logistics researcher at Vrije University in Brussels. Companies are delivering individual packages to various locations rather than shipping them, for example, in one big shipping container. Many delivery companies depend on diesel-fueled vans to deliver from one central warehouse, and as demand for delivery goes up, so do emissions. But as companies turn towards micro fulfillment centers located closer to urban areas, alternatives like cargo e-bikes can provide a solution to decarbonizing that last mile. One study found that cargo e-bikes can make deliveries 60% faster than vans in city centers and also have a lower carbon footprint, even compared to electric delivery vans.

Other companies like Ikea are also testing electric delivery services. In 2022, Ikea piloted a bike delivery service in the Netherlands—the SunRider—that runs on solar energy and is capable of carrying 90% of the company’s products. It was such a success that last year the furniture giant announced it wanted to expand the option to all its stores globally.

DHL, however, boasts the largest worldwide electrified fleet of any delivery company. Last year, of their total investments in decarbonization, 63% went to electrifying their fleet. But while DHL has made major strides in introducing e-bikes and electrifying other delivery vehicles in Western Europe, it has proven more difficult elsewhere. Overall, DHL was able to reduce its carbon emissions by 1 million metric tons of CO2e in 2022, with fleet electrification contributing a significant share of this. That’s the equivalent of taking 223,000 cars off the road for a year.

“When I looked at the electrification of our fleet, a large portion of those are in Europe and in Germany in particular,” says Hewitt. That’s thanks in part to these regions’ commitment to climate action, which enables a greater investment in green infrastructure. More local, state, and federal laws prioritizing climate-friendly investments, or more incentives for businesses to be able to invest in buildings, charging capability, vehicles, and so on is needed in places like the U.S. to make greater strides, added Hewitt.

While electrification is a big component of reducing last-mile related emissions, it’s also important to focus on other factors, like routing efficiency and consumer behaviors, says Gregory Keoleian, professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan. “Just using bikes is not going to solve our climate issues. As far as our carbon footprint is concerned, it is also about what you are consuming, how frequently you are getting stuff delivered to your home.”

To boost route efficiency, for example, UPS drastically scaled back the amount of left-turns it made, claiming that this simple policy saves it 10 million gallons of fuel and allows it to reduce emissions by 22,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. It also allows the company to deliver 350,000 more packages every year. Companies like DHL are also using AI-powered software and automation to optimize their routes in order to reduce emissions from last-mile deliveries.

Even with that in mind, experts like Lebeau think that the potential of cargo e-bikes has still not yet been reached. “I believe they have a huge part to play in decarbonizing the transport system,” he says. “The gap between where we are now and where we could go with this is huge. And I believe for larger organizations that have a fleet they should definitely include cargo bikes.”

Correction, March 4

The original version of this story misstated Gregory Keoleian’s title. He is a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan, not a professor emeritus.

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