Are electric bikes good for the environment, or is it just greenwashing? While electric bikes are gaining in popularity, the main question is: are they environmentally friendly?
The answer varies depending on the context. Surprising, isn’t it?
In absolute terms, electric bikes are generally not as environmentally friendly as ordinary bikes. The electricity that powers the motor of an electric assist bike comes from sources such as coal-fired power stations, which isn’t exactly a clean energy source, especially when you consider that 65% of the world’s electricity production comes from oil, gas, and coal (2015 figures, not sure if this has changed much since then).
Although the impact of e-bikes is much less than fossil fuel vehicles, some still question the use of lithium batteries, which have been predominant in the manufacture of electric bikes until now.
Read also: Are electric bikes good for the environment? And, World’s top travel destinations by electric bike (USA, Canada, UK, Australia).
However, if you think about the number of people use driving fossil fuel cars in the city and taking the bus to work, an electric bike could be a more environmentally friendly option for commuting in some situations, even in cities where there are alternatives to the car (such as public transport and carpooling).
It is important to note that the production and maintenance of a bicycle generate few greenhouse gas emissions. For a 20 kg (44-pound) bicycle made mainly of aluminum and which travels an average of 2400 kilometers (1500 miles) over eight years, we are talking about 5 g of CO2 per kilometer, according to the European Cycling Federation.
It’s more for an e-bike, though. The addition is the production and maintenance of its motor and lithium-ion battery, which require the extraction of sometimes rare metals, the energy supply of an EV is 16 g of CO2 per kilometer.
Read also: How to choose an electric bike? 10 criteria to consider before buying. And, What is the ideal e-bike? Must have features on any electric bike.
If you browse through forums and social networking groups on the subject, you will be surprised by the radicalness of some of the views. While some people claim that the electric bike is ecological, others disagree with this claim. What exactly is the situation?
After the most objective evaluation of the different points of view, it turns out both sides are probably right. But we will also see that green radicalism may not be the right approach and may even be counterproductive (as is often the case with extreme positions on any issue).
Here is our analysis.
Point of view number 1: the electric bike is not ecological
That is the point of view of the purists, the unwavering followers of muscle bikes. On the other hand, they are generally found among hardcore environmentalists, sportsmen, and sportswomen for whom electric assistance is not an option.
These two categories of users, although distinct, are not necessarily antinomic. You can be green and sporty. We will not dwell on the second category, as there is not much to say about the complete personal and legitimate choice of wanting to work out one’s calves and cardio.
The first category, on the other hand, that of cyclists who advocate athletic training for reasons of environmental protection, does so for reasons that seem obvious, and one cannot blame them for a certain coherence in their commitment, which consists of traveling by bike in order not to pollute.
Read also: Tips before buying an electric bike. And, Are electric bikes good for the environement?
Having given up the car (or never having used it), they advocate soft mobility based on cycling, walking, and possibly public transport. For them, there is no question of using an electrically powered bicycle, which from their point of view, only displaces the problem of all motorized propulsion, namely the question of the manufacture of motors and especially batteries, and then, of course, their recycling.
Not to mention the need for energy to recharge the bike. In short, a set of conditions that run counter to truly clean and virtuous mobility.
It is difficult to argue against these arguments, which are undeniable facts and are simply common sense. However, the reality is perhaps not quite so simple. That leads us to the.
Point of view number 2: the electric bike is ecological
So yes, an e-bike is equipped with a motor and batteries, with the production, consumption, and recycling issues that this entails. And, of course, the environmental impact of battery manufacturing is not neutral. “About 95% of the carbon footprint of an electrically assisted bicycle is linked to the manufacture of the bicycle itself,” explains Anne de Bortoli, a researcher in transport and the environment at the Ecole des Ponts Paris-Tech.
Moreover, the extraction of the cobalt needed to manufacture them also raises questions about the working and health conditions in the mines, mainly in the Congo and elsewhere, with the recurrent suspicion of child labor.
A 500 Wh battery contains around 40 grams of lithium, according to figures provided by Bosch, one of the sector’s giants. Then, of course, there is also the question of recycling, but it is now known that lithium-ion batteries can be fully recycled and that the channels are developing very quickly.
The electric bicycle is ecological because, as indicated above, it is a question of context and use.
And in the majority of cases, the use induces environmentally friendly behavior. Why and how? Because most of the urbanites who have opted for electric bikes are people who used to take their cars for short trips and to get to work every day. And because, in most cases, they are users who would never have taken the plunge if they had had to use a mechanical bike.
Read also: What to take with you on a longer e-biking ride? And, Top travel destinations by electric bike.
To quote my case, without fearing to say that it is most probably representative, I switched to daily commuting in 2017, riding a small 12 km (8 miles) round trip in town 5 days a week, summer and winter, whatever the weather (when I am not on business or holiday).
During this period, I have seen a phenomenal change in the number of bikes on my route. In 2017 I was mostly alone in the world (and even more so in the first cold weather) on the cycle paths; today, they have become actual cycle highways, many of them electric. I have many acquaintances in the same situation, and the bike park at my coworking space is now always full, whereas a few years ago, it was just my e-bike.
Among these relationships, I can say that the overwhelming majority – including many women – would never have changed their habits or opted for muscle biking, whereas the transition to the e-bike was easy and natural, even if we have to be aware that it is not yet within reach of everyone – but there are often financial aids and good low-cost e-bikes.
Read also: How much does it cost to own an e-bike? And, What is the difference between cheap and expensive e-bikes?
Let’s face it; all these new cyclists have been converted to cycling thanks to the electricity fairy. But, of course, that also has the virtue of making them exercise daily because depending on the setting you adopt, you still have to push on the pedals to move forward, electric motor or not, especially in a city where steep slopes are legion, like the one where I live.
A behavior which, through a training effect, is probably conducive to adopting a different, healthier, and, therefore, more frugal lifestyle.
Sales of electric bikes have been growing strongly for several years, with a natural boost since 2020, notably due to the pandemic, which was the actual trigger for the market explosion, revealing a need to regain individual autonomy, far from the hassle of public transport, while being environmentally friendly.
In many countries, for the first time, the e-bike market in terms of value exceeded that of conventional bicycles in the same year.
Should we be happy about this? Probably. Because it’s a safe bet that many new e-bike users are commuters who don’t – or no longer – take their car daily. And who, at the same time, are discovering the pleasure of urban or rural rides at the weekend on their motorized machine, which they would never have done with a muscle bike, and which they might have done in a car before.
Finally, let’s not forget the e-bike’s derisory energy cost, around 1 dollar or euro for 1,000 kilometers (600 miles).
So yes, in absolute terms, the e-bike pollutes at least more than the muscle bike, but when used, it induces changes in behavior that essentially tip the balance in favor of ecology. For example, an electric bike for everyday travel is often one less car on the road. It is also a bonus for preventing sedentary lifestyles. It has been shown that users of electrically-assisted bicycles cover more distance on average and are, therefore, just as active as traditional cyclists.
Decided to take the plunge? Well done! A warm welcome to the e-biking world.
Read also: How to select the best e-bike for your needs? Making your educated e-bike selection choice – and also in this article. And, How much does a good e-bike cost? Comprehensive e-bike pricing guide (with 46 examples).
Riding, testing, and writing about e-bikes since 2017.