A green course for the last mile

Making deliveries climate-neutral and sustainable

The parcel service industry in Germany is booming: the number of parcels sent has been increasing for years. Alternative means of transport must be found in order to make deliveries climate-neutral and environmentally friendly for people. The EU project "DECARBOMILE" is investigating how this can be achieved.

Let's imagine this: An electric ship sails through the Speicherstadt warehouse district in the centre of Hamburg. Fifteen metres long, four metres wide. Silent and electrically powered. On board the ship are not tourists marvelling at the sights of the Hanseatic city, but up to 1,000 parcels and packages from Deutsche Post DHL. Ecological and space-saving parcel delivery by waterway. Heike Flämig, Professor at the Institute of Transport Planning and Logistics at Hamburg University of Technology, dreams of this scenario. To turn the dream into reality, she is working with her research assistants Katharina Beck and Christopher Rahlf on the project "DECARBOMILE - Five pillars to DECARBOnise the last MILE logistics" with project partners from all over Europe on environmentally friendly parcel delivery in Hamburg.

New logistics concepts required

A look at CO2 emissions in the transport sector shows that emission-free deliveries are an important building block on the road to climate neutrality. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the transport sector was responsible for 15 per cent of global emissions in 2019. The logistics concepts of parcel service providers also largely involve the use of vans and transporters. Providers such as DHL, Deutsche Post's parcel service, have ambitious plans to become more environmentally friendly. Some of these are already being realised in Hamburg: Over 60 per cent of DHL's deliveries here are already climate-neutral and are made by electric car, bicycle and even on foot.  By 2025, the providers want to deliver a total of 70 per cent of their shipments emission-free. How can this work?

It all comes down to the last mile

"The last mile plays an important role in our investigation into climate-neutral and city-friendly parcel delivery," says Heike Flämig. She is a professor of transport chains and logistics at Hamburg University of Technology and has been working on solutions for emission-free delivery transport since the mid-1990s. As the name suggests, the last mile is the final stretch from the logistics service provider's last hub to the customer. "You can think of it as a very branched network," says Flämig. "Because there are umpteen different routes from each parcel centre to the individual service areas, i.e. to the residential and business locations where the recipients are waiting for the consignment." In the best case scenario. If the door remains closed because the customer is not at home or the shop is still closed, the parcel continues its journey to the nearest parcel shop or even back to the depot. This is costly for the delivery services and pollutes the environment as long as delivery vans powered by fossil fuels are used for deliveries. How about using yellow DHL cargo bikes and electric ships instead?

Further information

Website of the "DECARBOMILE" project

Read the full article in the current issue of spektrum (in German).