Electric cars could be a massive step forward for reducing our collective impact on the environment, but they do still have some negative environmental impact. Bicycling is a nearly impact-free alternative, and one that keeps you in good shape—but for many people, commuting to work and running errands with a conventional bicycle simply isn’t an option.
A new mode of transportation, electric bikes (or e-bikes) are starting to become more popular because they represent a middle ground between these two extremes. Could they really be superior to electric cars in terms of environmental impact?
What Is the Electric Bike?
In case you haven’t heard of them, electric bikes are visually and functionally very similar to bicycles. You can sit on them and pedal to move, just like you would a normal bike, but with one key difference—there’s also a built-in electric motor that can be used for propulsion. Because the motor is optional, and usually limited in terms of capacity, they don’t qualify strictly as a bicycle or a motorcycle—they’re somewhere in the middle.
E-bikes vary tremendously in terms of style, power, and capacity, but they almost always feature rechargeable electric batteries and the ability to travel upwards of 20 to 30 miles per hour (though there may be local laws governing how you can operate these vehicles). That’s certainly faster than most commuters would pedal, and spares you the effort of pedaling—so you don’t have to worry about working up a sweat on your way to work.
E-bikes do have some environmental impact, as almost any consumer product would, but they are zero-emissions vehicles, since their electric motors will emit no byproducts of combustion. However, because they rely on electricity, and most of the electricity in the United States is still produced from fossil fuels, they still aren’t environmentally neutral.
The Impact of Electric Cars
Let’s compare that style and impact to the environmental impact of electric cars. Electric cars have some important, irrefutable advantages over conventional, combustion engine vehicles. They dramatically reduce or eliminate harmful tailpipe pollutants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and lead. Many vehicles significantly reduce CO2 emissions, although the carbon dioxide emissions of a given vehicle depend on the power sources used to charge the vehicle (as well as the efficiency of the charging mechanism).
Remember, the majority of electricity is still produced using fossil fuels, which means even if your car isn’t directly emitting CO2, the energy it’s using to perform has been derived from sources that produce CO2, sometimes negating the benefits entirely. Accordingly, the true CO2 efficiency of an electric car depends on the country where the car is being operated, the energy efficiency of its driving, and the charging efficiency of the motor.
Electric cars have also come under fire for their heavy reliance on rare-earth elements, including lanthanum, neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium, as well as metals like lithium and cobalt. Because these resources are finite, electric cars could put a disproportionate burden on them. Improper disposal of the batteries in electric cars may also be problematic for the environment, though this depends on end-of-life handling.
Which Is Best?
In terms of total energy efficiency, there’s no question that e-bikes are superior to traditional vehicles. One study found that they’re 18 times more efficient than an SUV, 13 times more efficient than a sedan, six times more efficient than traveling via rails, and with roughly the same environmental impact as a traditional bicycle. That said, because conventional bicycles don’t use electricity, and don’t rely on batteries, they still have the edge in terms of environmental impact.
Overall, bicycles are the best choice for the environment, but the limitations of bicycles make them practically impossible for many daily needs. On the other end of the spectrum, electric cars, while certainly a progressive step forward, still have some environmental issues to sort out. In the meantime, e-bikes serve as a balanced middle ground, which you can use to run errands and travel efficiently without slowing yourself down. Ultimately, your choices as a consumer should be based not on finding an environmentally “perfect,” universal solution, but rather minimizing your impact whenever you can, and choosing the most appropriate transportation method for each situation. Any effort you make is a step forward in the right direction.
This post was sponsored by Vintage Electric Bikes; images from the company.