Another quaint idea held by Americans is that the United States Postal Service should pay for itself. (We think the same thing about passenger railroads, which is why we don't really have any, but that's a topic for another day.) The pay-your-own-way fantasy about mail dates to the Nixon Administration and has resulted in yearly hand-wringing in Congress as the Postal Service comes hat-in-hand for continued subsidies. But here in 2009, things are getting really serious. The Postal Service is asking Congress for permission to end Saturday deliveries. By shifting to five-day-a-week service, the USPS expects to save billions. Opposition is strong, however, among members of Congress who know they will hear from angry constituents about this attack on their Constitutional right to receive mail on Saturday.
The Postal Service is in financial trouble for the most basic of reasons. We are sending less mail. A lot less. The USPS saw a drop of 9 billion pieces of mail in 2008 and expects to deliver 27 billion fewer pieces in 2009. From its 2006 peak of 213 billion pieces of mail, the USPS projects that it will deliver 170 billion in 2010, a net decline of 43 billion pieces in five years.
Why the decline? In a word, "online." The use of email, instant messaging, social networks, online collaboration tools and tweets has become so widespread that the mails are carrying little but catalogs, direct mail advertising, bills and greeting cards. And therein lies a silver lining. A 2009 report from Pitney Bowes, manufacturer of mail processing systems, estimates that delivering one piece of first-class mail - a letter - generates 20 grams of carbon dioxide. Let's make a generous assumption: that every piece of mail the Postal Service delivers weighs no more than a letter. On that basis, the 43-billion-piece decline will reduce the national carbon footprint by a yearly amount rising to 860,000 tons in 2010.
That online communication has a carbon footprint of its own. I'm working on finding a meaningful estimate for a future white paper. But it seems likely to be less than moving a letter across town or across a continent. So keep on sending those emails and tweets, friends. A 2008 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that is now takes less than half the energy it took in 1970 to generate a dollar of economic output. And as the broadband economy takes hold, we're getting better at it. While the "energy intensity" of the US economy declined 1.8% per year on average from 1970 to 1995, it dropped an average of 2.4% per year from 1996 through 2006. Apparently, the broadband economy can do more than generate prosperity. It can help in fight against climate change as well.