You don’t have to travel far these days to see someone on an e-bike or e-scooter. But a big question that looms is are electric bikes good for the environment?
The popularity of e-bikes seems to rest on the nice middle ground they occupy – somewhere between driving a car and riding a pedal powered bike.
An electric bike can’t compete for the physical benefits that riding a bicycle offers, but can they offer an environmental benefit to regular vehicle travel?
On the surface of things, e-bikes seem like a much better choice for reducing carbon emissions and improving air pollution than a petrol-powered car.
This blog will explore just how good e-bikes are for the environment, if there are any downsides from an eco-friendly perspective and see if electric bikes can form part of the solution to climate change.
How environmentally friendly are electric bikes?
Electric bikes are just like a regular pedal bike, but with the addition of a powerful motor to help you get around with much less effort.
Unlike a traditional car motor, an e-bike is powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels. It’s said that motor vehicles contribute to 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
This is why the switch and growing popularity of electric vehicles is so important, as any reduction to our GHG emissions is a plus. A big benefit to electric bikes is that they are encouraging people who would not usually travel by bike to stop using cars. Other electric modes of transport such as e-scooters are also proving very popular. Have a read here to see if e-scooters are eco-friendly.
On average, cyclists cover more ground on an e-bike when compared to a regular bike. One study on ECF found that the average commuting distance on an electric bike to be 56% higher.
With more people travelling longer distances via an e-bike, there’s less need to use a car.
Benefits to the environment of an electric bike:
- No GHG emissions
- Zero air pollution
- No noise pollution
- No congestion
- No road damage
- Replacing car commutes
- Batteries can be recycled
- Can be charged and powered with renewable energy
It’s clear that when compared to their fossil-fuel vehicle alternatives, zero-emission e-bikes powered by electricity are much better for the environment.
However, although electric bikes emit no emissions during use, they still have a carbon footprint to them. Let’s take a look at these topics so you can assess the overall environmental cost of e-bikes.
Disadvantages of e-bikes for the environment
There’s a carbon cost to producing and maintaining an electric bike. Although this is still a ‘disadvantage’ to the environment, it’s much lower cost than almost all of the alternatives – aside from walking and regular cycling.
E-bike manufacturing environmental cost
Most electric bikes in the world are produced, at least in part, in China.
E-bike companies in the UK and Europe either import the bikes wholesale and re-brand them, have factories that produce a specific bike, or buy components from different supply chains and assemble themselves.
It’s thought that almost all e-bike frames – usually made from aluminium, carbon, steel or titanium – are made in either China or Taiwan. Companies such as Specialized, Trek and Raleigh source their frames from Asia.
This doesn’t have to be the case however – it’s entirely possible for frames and e-bikes to made in the UK.
Brompton, the well-known fold up bike for example, is the UK’s largest bike manufacturer. Brompton make all their bikes in London. Other companies, such as Volt, make all their e-bikes in the UK too.
There’s then the production of the batteries. Yes, you guessed it, China dominates this market. It’s thought that China produced 77% of all lithium ion batteries in 2020 with the United States in second place with 9%.
With the batteries in the scene, it means that e-bikes have a higher manufacturing carbon footprint than regular bikes.
Charging emissions and battery life
You then have the emissions associated with charging an e-bike up.
There’s a fairly low riding range with most e-bikes of around 30 miles. So, it’s likely you’re going to be charging up an e-bike quite often as you have to do with electric scooters.
On a brighter note, the charging is done through your mains electricity provider. So if you source electricity from a green renewable energy provider, this is a more sustainable option. If you charge a bike at night too, you’ll also be using electricity when the grid is quiet.
The fact that e-bikes are rechargeable is good, but it will deteriorate over time. It’s said that electric bike batteries on average will last for 2-3 years.
At the end of this time, you’ll have to replace the battery and hopefully recycle your e-waste properly, which can be difficult. You can read more about the importance of e-waste recycling here.
All that being said, the emissions associated with an e-bike are much less than driving a car.
One study found that the CO2e emissions of an electric bike, including the production, maintenance and energy use of the cyclist, to be 22 grams per kilometre. Bike Radar weighed up the figures and came up with 14.8g CO2e per km travelled on ebike. Apparently, this figure is lower than a conventional bike, because less calories are burned and a lower amount of calories, in the form of food, needs to be eaten.
For comparison, the equivalent emissions of a car per kilometre is around 271g – more than a 10-fold difference.
this is a tick for e-bikes in terms of emissions and the environment.
What about the batteries on electric bikes?
We know e-bikes batteries will last for 2-3 years. But what kind of batteries do e-bikes use?
More often than not, electric bikes use a lithium-ion battery. It’s thought that lithium-ion batteries, also called or Li-ion batteries, give you the best reliability, travel range and longevity.
This wasn’t always the case, as the first e-bikes generally ran on lead-acid batteries.
Although cheaper, lead acid batteries are much heavier than lithium ones and not as efficient. A lead battery can store around 25 watt-hours per kilogram, whereas a lithium battery can be around 150 watt-hours of electricity per kg.
The chemistry inside a lithium battery is complicated, particularly for the uninitiated. But where do the raw materials come from?
Li-ion batteries are made from many different materials, but some of the more common elements are lithium, nickel, copper and cobalt. These are all extracted out of the ground. Lithium generally comes from salt flat areas of South America (Bolivia and Chile), North America (Mexico and Nevada) and Australia.
Like all forms of Earth extraction, whether it’s for diamonds or silicone, the environment is harmed and ecosystems degraded. There are also problems with huge water use and surface water contamination.
Then there’s the actual manufacturing of a lithium battery. It’s thought the production of a kilogram of lithium ion batteries requires around 67 megajoules of energy. That’s a lot of energy – 1 megajoule is said to be equal to the energy required to move a 1 tonne vehicle at 100mph.
So, lithium batteries themselves aren’t exactly environmentally friendly, but they are currently the best alternative out there. It may be in the future that technology such as green hydrogen takes over. It was a company involved in green hydrogen that won a 2021 Earthshot Prize.
We also have to weigh up what the batteries are replacing (fossil fuels) and how they are treated at the end of their life where the eco-benefits may be. If you compare the costs of batteries to petrol and diesel engines and the environmental costs of these, e-bikes come out on top.
Can e-bike batteries be recycled?
The positive is that yes, e-bike batteries can be recycled. At the minute however, there’s no simple way to recycle e-bike batteries.
Recycling batteries largely involves recovering the metals from the battery pack. This can be done a number of ways – including hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy – with healthy recovery rates.
The downside currently is that the recovery rate for recycling lithium ion batteries is very small – somewhere in the single figures at best. In Europe the current levels of Li-ion battery recovery is around 5%.
Unfortunately, this means most lithium batteries will end up in landfill. This is exactly where we, and the environment, do not want them to be.
To combat this, there needs to be a proper process for recycling lithium ion batteries. Whether this is a take-back scheme from the bike manufacturers or local initiatives at recycling centres.
Bike companies, including Specialized, now offer a free recycling programme. They have partnered with Ecolamp, a UK waste carrier and recycler, to help stop batteries going to landfill. Ecolamp also collect different types of WEEE waste, including computers and other electric items.
There are other companies, such as Umicore and Silverfish, who will happily recycle lithium batteries too.
E-waste recycling is a huge problem that the world is facing. It’s largely done on a company-to-company basis, but we need a whole country approach if it’s to be a success. Easy to access systems and the infrastructure needs to be in place to tackle this before it becomes as big as plastics.
Conclusion: are e-bikes good for the environment?
With everything combined, electric bikes are much better for the environment than fossil-fuel powered vehicles.
E-bikes are zero emission vehicles, produce no direct air pollution and no noise. Because of the calorie costs, and equivalent food emissions, e-bikes may even be more sustainable than conventional bikes.
That’s not to say that e-bikes are perfect for the environment. They aren’t, but they are one of the best options out there at the minute.
Big questions remain about the environmental cost of manufacturing the batteries (which is getting better) and disposal when they become redundant after a couple of years.
The recycling process in place for e-bike batteries needs to be made as simple as possible, so that a much, much higher percentage of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. This would significantly improve the environmental impact of e-bikes even further.
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