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Virtual shopping can not only cut down the number of cars on the roads, but reduce vehicular emissions as well

Published: Monday 31 August 1998

-- (Credit: Samapti)WHEN it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, all our accusing fingers point towards the industries, blaming them profusely for reducing our once-green Earth to a sick, polluted planet. Having thus shifted our responsibilities, we carry on happily with our daily lives, without ever recognising our own share of the blame.

The car we use daily for commuting continues to be the single most important source of carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas. And at the rate people all over the world are buying them, most countries will experience a virtual explosion in the number of vehicles on their roads ' very soon. Disconcerted by this problem and the consequential impacts on the environment, several nations - UK, for example - are considering various possible solutions, "sustainable mobility" being one of them.

People, however, do not necessarily want mobility, sustainable or otherwise. They usually travel for a reason, says an article published in a recent issue of New Scientist (Vol 158, No 2136). Take shopping. About a quarter of car journeys in the UK are for shopping or such closely related activities as trips down to the post office or bank. This type of car journeys, says the article, is growing fast, not only in Britain but in urban centres all across the globe. Nearly all the growth in traffic during this decade was the result of the increase in the use of cars for shopping and personal business. New technology, however, could soon reverse this trend. History is littered with instances of new technologies replacing the old. Now virtual shopping can replace those weekly drives to the supermarket. All that is needed is a little help from the government. Britain's two biggest supermarkets already have Internet shopping trials. All you do is log on to the Web, surf the virtual aisles, choose what you want to buy and place your orders which are delivered by van.

Virtual shopping has several distinct environmental advantages. One van, for instance, can carry the shopping of up to 15 households and delivers within an eight-kilometre radius of a store. It is far more efficient for one van to deliver to 15 house-holds on a round trip than for 15 cars to drive up to the store. The precise saving depends a lot on geography, but the net reduction in distance travelled could easily be as much as 70 to 80 per cent, bringing corresponding cuts in pollution.

The government, says Mick Hamer, the author of the article, can help kick-start virtual shopping. On the most basic level, stores and supermarkets can be urged to drop their charges for the service and have a minimum order size instead, roughly equivalent to a carload of shopping. This will ensure that the vans are used efficiently.

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