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Are E-Bikes the Answer to Electrified Transport?

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we take a closer look at electrified transport and E-bikes.
Abigail Bassett
Dec 1, 2023 9 min read
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As COP28 kicks off and questions grow around big oil’s role in the events, we’re taking a closer look at green transportation here at Climatebase, since the sector is one of the largest contributors to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that we recently wrote about the evolution of greener flight, and its implications for stemming climate change. While lowering the carbon output of flights is an important macro-trend and a significant step toward cleaning up the transportation sector, there are some “greener” pastures closer to home that could have an even more significant impact: More climate-friendly alternatives to last-mile transportation like e-bikes, electric scooters, and other micro-mobility solutions. But are they really the answer to our climate change woes?

The Last Mile Problem

It’s no news that transportation is responsible for approximately one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world, but where those emissions really stack up is in what’s known as the “last mile.” Last-mile transportation–typically from the distribution center to your doorstep–lends an estimated 8% to the equation.

This data is particularly relevant right now, as we enter the biggest shopping season of the year between now and the holidays, and the major carriers have already prepped for a very busy season, by implementing surcharges and extending timelines for deliveries around the holidays.

The biggest issue is “idling”: stopping and starting, heavy traffic, and short trips, all of which contribute to the problem of last-mile emissions. While there has been some effort to clean up the last mile delivery thanks to commercial electric vans, like the 100,000 Rivians that Amazon says it has in its fleet, there’s still a long way to go to get last-mile emissions under control.

While those electric vans are helping to green up the delivery process, they do also pose some drawbacks. They take a significant amount of time and energy to recharge, and tend to have a bit less range than internal combustion vehicles. Their battery packs are heavy, which can cause an increase in road damage, especially in areas that see cold weather and snow mitigation efforts. Those batteries also require a lot of rare earth minerals to make, which can have a high impact on the environmental and human rights. Plus, just like consumer EVs, even commercial EVs will face an end-of-life battery recycling issue that has yet to be completely solved.

Electric Micro-mobility to the Rescue?

If electric delivery vans aren’t the magic bullet, then what is? Some tout the advent of electric micro-mobility as a way to reduce transportation's impact on the climate and continue to meet our collective growing demand for all things delivery.

According to the International Energy Agency, there were more than 26 million electric vehicles on the roadway last year. These include cars, trucks, vans, SUVs and crossovers. As of 2022, there are only 1.3 million commercial electric delivery vans, trucks, and buses working to tackle that last mile problem, but many argue that electrifying vans and trucks still won’t reduce emissions. In fact, a shift to electric micro-mobility for the last mile, as TechCrunch points out, may be the next big market opportunity for delivery services–and it could help accelerate efforts to decarbonize the transportation sector further.

There are an estimated 280 million mopeds, scooters, motorcycles, and three-wheelers on the road as of last year, according to Bloomberg Energy Finance. That has cut demand for oil by nearly 1 million barrels per day.

While that’s significant, the impact could be even greater if delivery and logistics companies got in on the trend in a more robust way. FedEx, UPS and Amazon all have small-scale tests running all over the world using various forms of all-electric last-mile delivery systems, but so far they are just tests. The companies have not rolled out these solutions to wider areas yet.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Micro-mobility Solutions

In general, the impact of micro-mobility on climate change is significant and positive. These transportation tools reduce greenhouse gas emissions and congestion in large cities that tend to both generate the most carbon emissions and bear the brunt of pollution. They also reduce our reliance on oil and gas, but there are still some drawbacks.

For one, some argue that more, smaller vehicles on the roads won’t solve congestion problems, and would only increase the demand for power generation. Many cities are not yet fully equipped to support widespread micro-mobility. Many lack dedicated lanes, parking spaces, and charging stations for both consumers and commercial users.

Safety issues are also a concern, as both the public and commercial ventures get into the electric micro-mobility space and mingle with conventional traffic in already congested cities. For one, there will likely be an uptick in accidents and injuries. Case in point, micro-mobility is still so new that just last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that police departments add new codes to their crash data to identify and track scooter and other micro-mobility accidents.

Additionally, an increase in battery fires, like those we have seen in New York, are to be expected.

Furthermore, while micro-mobility solutions can significantly reduce emissions for short trips or last-mile deliveries, they may not be as effective for longer distances or in areas with harsh weather conditions. This limitation means that while e-bikes and scooters can complement public transit and other green transportation methods, they cannot fully replace them.

Like any EV, the manufacturing and disposal of electric micro-mobility vehicles, especially their batteries, pose environmental challenges. The production of lithium-ion batteries, which are essential for these vehicles, involves significant energy use and the extraction of rare minerals, often from environmentally sensitive areas. Moreover, the end-of-life management of these batteries is a growing concern, as improper disposal can lead to pollution and resource waste.

Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of electric micro-mobility are hard to ignore. A 2015 study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that if cities around the world embraced cycling, there could be an 11% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2050. While that study is older and focuses on both e-bikes as well as conventional cycling, it’s clear that electric micro-mobility vehicles offer a cost-effective and convenient option for urban commuting and last-mile delivery, potentially reducing reliance on personal cars and helping to decongest city roads.

Cities are taking notice and getting on board, too. Paris has invested heavily in expanding its bike lanes and offers subsidies for e-bike purchases. Similarly, in New York City, a successful cargo bike trial led to a 109% increase in deliveries by cargo bikes, demonstrating their efficacy in urban logistics.

As the corporate sector continues to invest in e-mobility, and an increasing number of consumers make the micro-mobility shift, climate change will only benefit. While there are still plenty of challenges, including sustainable battery production, urban infrastructure improvements, changes in public policies to encourage the adoption of green transportation options, and more, e-bikes and electric micro-mobility just might help us get to a more sustainable place.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett