Electric scooter companies like to designate their green references, and often remind cyclists that every two-wheel ride they take can help reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change – but the truth is much more complicated.
A new study from North Carolina State University found that shared e-scooters may be more environmentally friendly than most cars, but they may be less green than several other alternatives, including bicycles, walking and certain forms of public transportation. Riders tend to think they are making the right move by jumping on a scooter that is electric and thus carbon free. But what they do not see is all the emissions produced by the production, transport, maintenance and maintenance of dock-free scooters.
"If you just think about the segment of the life cycle you can see, who will stand on a scooter where there are no pipes, it's easy to make that assumption," said Jeremiah Johnson, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of civil engineering. , construction and environmental engineering at NC State. "But if you take a step back, you can see all the other things that are a bit hidden in the process."
Johnson and his team "took a step back" by performing it which is called a "lifecycle analysis" of the dockless scooter industry, which meant looking at all the emissions associated with every aspect of a scooter's lifecycle: the production of the materials, such as the lithium-ion battery and the aluminum parts; the manufacturing process; mainly China) to that city of use; collecting, charging and distributing scooters as part of dockless service.
The study's conclusions were equally obvious and surprising. Driving a car was the least environmentally friendly alternative ivet, but using the bus ̵[ads1]1; especially a diesel-powered one along a very busy route – was a better option than riding an e-scooter. Walking and cycling, or even an e-bike, was also much better than using an e-scooter.
Overall, the average greenhouse gas emissions per kilometer driven are about 200 grams of CO2. In comparison, the life cycle emissions of an average car are just over 400 grams of CO2. So riding a scooter is a definite winner of taking a car.
The problem is that only a third of the scooter trips replace car trips. The NC State team conducted a survey of riders to find out how people used scooters and what kind of trips they displaced by choosing to ride an electric two-wheeler. Their results – supported by other scooter rider surveys – were that 49 percent of cyclists would ride or walk, 34 percent would use a car, 11 percent take a bus, and 7 percent would not ride at all.
Although about 63 percent of electricity in the United States is produced from fossil fuels, the environmental impact from the electricity used to charge each scooter is quite small – about 5 percent of the total power, the researchers found. The main culprits were the materials used to build each scooter, mostly aluminum, and the carbon produced by the vehicles used by independent contractors to collect and charge the scooters each night.
There are some simple solutions to these problems that the scooter companies are already trying to tackle. The first is to cut down on all the run as freelancers who collect scooters at night for charging. Lime tries to do this by introducing a new feature that allows its "juicers" to reserve a scooter in advance, thus reducing the amount of unnecessary driving that occurs when juicers are looking for scooters.
Another way to reduce the environmental impact would be to build a better scooter that lasts longer than the models distributed in the first days of the scooter boom.
"If the scooter companies are able to extend the life of the scooters without doubling the impact of materials and production, it will reduce the load per kilometer," Johnson said. "If you can make these things for two years, it will have a huge impact."
The scooter companies do this too. Bird recently unveiled its latest next-generation scooter with a longer-lasting battery and more durable parts. Lime has also rolled out newer models that it claims will improve the unit economy of the scooter industry.
Ultimately, however, the claim that scooter riding is the greenest option available is simply not true. And the scooter companies seem to be aware of that, at least on the surface. Last year, Lime said that to make the entire fleet of electric bikes and scooters completely "carbon-free," the San Francisco-based company will begin buying renewable energy credit from new and existing projects.
This is a good idea (although there is some skepticism about the efficiency of carbon offsets), but it does not solve the main problem of the dual scooter business model: the use of freelancers to collect and charge a fleet of electric scooters. Lime says it hopes to eventually be able to account for these emissions in the carbon neutral program, but it has not yet.