Bicycles Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction for Dummies

Published on December 22nd, 2011 | by Charis Michelsen


Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction for Dummies: Or, Laziness Will Kill Us All

December 22nd, 2011 by  

Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction for DummiesThe European Cyclist Federation (ECF) published a study this month evaluating how well bicycles can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, the ECF’s report deals with greenhouse gas emissions directly or indirectly caused by traffic and transportation. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ECF determined that bicycles are the greenest vehicle it’s possible to own.

The European Union has a stated goal of 60% emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, and the ECF doesn’t think the EU is going to meet its goals with technological advances and fuel efficiency alone (a conclusion also reached by the European Environment Agency). In fact, the ECF thinks that increased fuel efficiency and more efficient use of motorized vehicles can only go so far – and by “so far,” they mean “20% below 1990 levels by 2050.”

It’s A Numbers Game

Bicycles aren’t quite zero emission – the ECF took into account the carbon emissions from manufacture and maintenance of the vehicles. They also accounted for fuel – in the case of a bicycle, it’s the sandwich the cyclist has for lunch in order to have the energy necessary to keep pedaling. Even so, the ECF determined that bicycle emissions are over 10 times lower than that of a passenger car.

The ECF evaluated the bicycle-riding habits of citizens throughout the EU over a number of years; they found that the most bicycles were ever ridden was in Denmark in 2000 (about 1.6 miles a day). Pay attention to that, because they repeat it over and over again (although it should be noted the Danes did not maintain their high bicycle use). They then compared the emissions from the cyclists to those from using cars, buses, and electric bicycles and mopeds.

The verdict? If all the EU citizens pedal as hard as the Danes did in 2000, 26% of the EU emissions goals would be met right there. “Take that up to 3 miles a day, and that’s half the goal right there,” said study author Benoit Blondel, ECF speaker for Environment and Health, to

Don’t We Have Green Vehicles On The Roads Now?

Blondel has an answer for that too, as reported by

“The potential that bicycles have to help us meet emissions goals is considerable. There’s very little effort required to get people onto bicycles, and it’s more economically sound than putting more electric cars on the street. If we really want to reach the [emissions reduction] goal, we have to change our behavior. It doesn’t mean we travel less – it’s about the way we travel, and the transportation choices made possible by our government.”

The problem with Blondel’s glib statement is that the amount of effort required isn’t “very little.” Behavioral changes aren’t easy when self-determined, and trying to get an entire population to abandon their beloved, comfortable, and convenient personal passenger car for a bicycle – particularly when it’s cold, hot, raining, snowing, or the weather is in any other way unpleasant – isn’t going to be a simple matter. Motivation is the key, and the ECF’s report doesn’t address that question.

Key Points

  • Bicycle-caused greenhouse gas emissions are 10 times lower than passenger-car-caused emissions. (Yes, the fact that cyclists probably eat more was also included in the calculations.)
  • Bicycles of any variety can replace 56% of daily commuting passenger car use.
  • Bicycles of any variety can replace 39% of non-commuting passenger car use.
  • Bicycle lending programs have the capacity to replace 50%-70% of motorized transport, reducing emissions even further.
  • Cycle like the Danes in the year 2000 to immediately account for 26% of the EU emissions reduction goal.
  • Cycle like the Danes in the year 2000 to reduce EU crude oil imports by 10% (assuming standard crude oil import of 955 million barrels per year).
  • A combination of technological improvements, fewer carbon-rich fuels, more efficient use of vehicles, and more efficient traffic systems will only reduce emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2050.
  • The EU emissions reduction goal cannot be met with technology alone. Ambitious programs aimed at shifting away from personal motorized transport are necessary to meet the goal.

Would you be willing to buy and ride a bicycle to help your country meet emissions goals? Let us know in the comments, below.

Source: | Image: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

spent 7 years living in Germany and Japan, studying both languages extensively, doing translation and education with companies like Bosch, Nissan, Fuji Heavy, and others. Charis has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. She also believes that Janeway was the best Star Trek Captain.

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  • Swesley

    I believe we can help! Bicycles are nice, but we all can’t travel to work or visit friends and families by bike. Especially in the winter time. We represent a bio source system, developed overseas, that has a world wide patent, and can eliminate fly ash / coal ash, even garbage, animal waste, sludge, and petroleum waste, while capturing Co2 and producing 3 renewable energy sources. Our technology can thermal chemically process, the fly ash, (or waste) and convert it to electricity, oxygen, and methanol and we have proven this since 2003. All this with ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS! Plus we can create jobs and prevent elimination of some, create revenue streams for municipalities, or government, and rid pollutant waste!

    Our first plant was erected in Serbia in 2003 to help the government there recover from the ravishes of war and NATO bombing. There, it was able to produce the three sources mentioned above, with the electricity funneled back into the grid, and the methanol used to fuel their stoves, heat their homes, and utilize for their automobiles and trucks.

    Recently, we have sold a system to Saudi Arabia for the use of petroleum waste and they have plans to build a 2 GW plant to produce millions and millions of gallons of methanol from the waste. A 20 MW system produces 24 million gallons of methanol on an 8 hour – 5 day work week. Price of methanol currently is about $1.36 per gallon. Our thoughts are to have the methanol integrated with gasoline and chemically restructured to meet the oil demands of the future. Yet, our system also produces quite a bit of ELECTRICITY WHICH CAN BE FUNNELED INTO YOUR GRID, oxygen too.

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  • The Danes (and the Dutch also) live in a climate most conducive to biking: very temperate, with the biggest foes to biking being wind and rain. Their geography is also bike-friendly: those countries are FLAT – so flat, that even the elderly can keep biking as long as their balance is good. Biking where it is not flat on that kind of scale is just plain hard. Those streets that you thought were perfectly flat while you were driving in your car turn out to have a slope enough to make you pant and sweat, so you’re much much less willing to bike those with a pannier full of groceries.
    Also, the Dutch had to lobby very hard to get their nice safe bike paths; before that there were a horrific number of accidents lethal to the biker. Since a few years the laws were skewed to the advantage of the biker (in case of an accident involving a bike and a car), and that has made another huge difference.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love my bike and use it whenever I can (even when hauling groceries – but not too many), but without the right infrastructure I just don’t feel safe. Even with the right infrastructure, in the face of steep enough hills (think Boulder, CO) I’d quake. At my age, if I lived there I would get a bike with an auxiliary electric motor.
    But yes, that’s as close as you can get to true zero emissions, unlike those electric cars that claim clamorously to have zero emissions.

    • Anonymous

      Electric cars do have zero emissions. There’s no tailpipe, no exhaust.

      The grid we use to charge them is not yet clean. It’s getting cleaner and will continue to do so as we move from fossil fuels to renewable fuels.

      Bikes are great for a portion of our travel. As are feet and trains. But not one size fits all at all times. We need a wide selection of clean options.

      • Giles Gonnsen

        Yes, but the environmental impact of manufacturing a bike and shipping to a store, vs the cost of manufacturing that electric car and shipping it to a store … bikes come in much lower.

        Don’t get me wrong, I love electric cars, but the article is correct in suggesting that we all have to change our lifestyles as well.

        • Agreed. Not just the bike itself, but also the infrastructure (a LOT of concrete for roads and parking lots).

          Granted, some people will always drive, but there is HUGE potential for driving less. The nicest places I ever lived and visited focused on bikes as transportation — quality of life was on another level.

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