Vox dropped a really, really stupid article today that I wouldn’t bother linking at all if not for how amazingly mathematically inept it is. In usual Vox style, they play to those in the blue echo chamber that want to look smarter than their peers on social media by sharing it, because it has all sorts of numbers in it.
Vox here commits the fundamental sin we so often see in media outlets of failing to account for counterfactuals. A “counterfactual” is the “thing that would have happened otherwise,” which may often be worse than the thing someone is complaining about. We don’t yell at an apple for being an apple, we compare it to another apple to see which one is more rotten. Here’s an excerpt of a Vox factual that ignores any counterfactuals:
Amazon’s carbon emissions have grown every year since 2018, and last year alone, when global carbon emissions fell roughly 7 percent, Amazon’s carbon emissions grew 19 percent to 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly equivalent to burning 140 million barrels of oil.
It’s almost as if Rebecca Heilweil, the erudite author of this piece, has never been shopping. In fact, Amazon’s increase in carbon footprint is partially responsible for our overall drop in carbon footprint. Here’s why.
For Americans to go shopping, they must get in a car. And the thing that makes the car go is gasoline. And the American drives the car to the store, burning gas, buys the thing they’re looking for, and drives home, burning more gas. That gas is gas too, and counts just as much as Amazon gas, and Amazon is saving us this gas.
Nobody carpools to go shopping, it’s too hard, but if there were magically some way to get someone to do your shopping for you, and then drive your purchase to your house while also driving all the other purchases other people bought to their houses, then that would be a Shopping Carpool, saving gas. This is exactly what Amazon is. Amazon is a Shopping Carpool.
We can calculate how much gas is saved by Amazon’s Shopping Carpool with simple mathematics, and by the time we’re done, Rebecca Heilweil will hopefully not only retract her goofy article but buy Jeff Bezos a reward for his herculean effort to reduce the United States carbon footprint by a factor that exceeds the entire national carbon footprint of some countries. Let’s begin.
Amazon driving routes vary by region. Urban routes are different than rural routes, and such, but if we go by personal accounts of Amazon drivers we can begin our calculation with the following assumptions:
200 stops per day per van
25 stops per hour
8 hours per day
Amazon fields a varied fleet of vehicles but many of them, in my experience, are Sprinter vans which work out in delivery conditions to consume approximately 14.5 miles per gallon driven. Delivery drivers travel a variety of distances, but anecdotally when you ask them, they seem to say somewhere around 80 miles per day is a good average number to assume.
[80 miles per day] / [14.5 miles per gallon] = 5.51 gallons per day consumed by the van.
[5.51 gallons per day] / [200 stops per van] = 0.028 gallons of fuel consumed by Amazon per shopping trip averted.
We now know the “gallon of gas” footprint of your Amazon delivery package, on average, within some confidence interval I don’t plan on calculating for a quick blog post. We need to compare this number to the “gallon of gas” footprint of the counterfactual, which is not [don’t buy the thing], but is rather [get in your car to go buy the thing at a store].
According to figures released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average citizen in 2010 went on 470 store trips per year, and drove 3102 miles shopping in the year, netting an average of 6.6 miles driven per store trip. The average fuel economy for modern American cars is 24.9 miles per gallon.
[6.6 miles per trip] / [24.9 miles per gallon] = 0.265 gallons of fuel consumed per individual shopping trip.
You consume about ten times more fuel per shopping trip by shopping yourself than Amazon would consume delivering you a package.
[0.265 gallons consumed per package by you] - [0.028 gallons consumed per package by Amazon] = 0.237 gallons of gasoline saved every time you buy from Amazon instead of doing it yourself.
That adds up, package by package. Amazon delivers 2.5 billion packages per year, each of which has a gasoline savings tacked onto it. And gasoline releases twenty pounds of carbon per gallon of gas burned.
[0.237 gallons saved per package] * [2.5 billion packages per year] = 593,685,000 gallons of shopping trip gasoline saved by Amazon per year
[593,685,000 gallons per year averted] * [20 lb CO2 per gallon] * [0.000453592 metric tons per pound] / [1 million tonnes per megatonne ] = 5.386 megatonnes of carbon release averted by Amazon doing our shopping for us.
This is approximately the entire carbon footprint of the country of Nicaragua.
I do not know of any single man or woman on planet earth, be they a politician, entrepreneur, climate activist, or common dude, who can claim to have invented a process and founded a company that averts as much carbon emissions as the entire country of Nicaragua’s national carbon footprint.
Which must mean Bezos is the greenest person alive. But only if you believe math.