Electric bikes aren’t a new idea, by any means. The first patent for an electric bicycle dates back more than 100 years, and there’s already a relatively large market for them in Europe.

Now, North Americans are starting to make the switch, and within the next three years (2020-2023), experts expect 130 million e-bikes to sell globally. By 2023, there should be about 300 million e-bikes on the streets. 

Replacing cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles with e-bikes should bode well for the environment, right? After all, many commuters purchase these bikes to reduce their carbon footprint and do their part to save the planet.

With that in mind, what’s the true environmental impact of e-bikes? Let’s take a closer look at both the good and the bad for the environment.

Image of an Electric Bike - Are Electric Bikes Good for the Environment?
Image of an Electric Bike (E-Bike)

Replacing Cars 

Riding an e-bike instead of driving a car benefits the environment in several ways. From reducing carbon emissions to fostering an appreciation for nature, electric bikes can be an eco-friendly alternative to vehicles that run on gasoline or other fossil fuels. 

Minimizing Emissions

Automobiles produce carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which pollute the air and exacerbate global warming. A passenger vehicle will emit 4.6 tons of CO2 annually. However, larger vehicles and those that run on diesel may release even more. These emissions can cause acid rain, increase the amount of ground-level ozone and disrupt both land and marine ecosystems. 

The e-bike, however, is a brilliant alternative to driving a vehicle. Most will assist pedaling up to 15.5 miles per hour, and commuting on an electric bike can help you avoid traffic and get places faster. 

In terms of helping the environment, taking an e-bike instead of a car deserves a huge thumbs up. These bikes produce no emissions at all, keeping the air clean and breathable for both animals and people. 

Long-Lasting Batteries

When you grow tired of pedaling, a lithium-ion or lead-acid battery will pick up the slack and help keep your pace. These battery packs make bicycling more attractive for those who are older or would otherwise be unable to ride a bike. Plus, they allow you to go faster, travel farther, easily tackle uphill climbs, and accelerate quicker after a stop. 

Electric Bike
An Electric Bike (the battery is the silver rectangular object above the pedal)

Of course, these batteries don’t last forever. A single charge will typically allow you to cover 20 to 30 miles, but you’ll have to draw electricity from your local power grid to recharge. Doing so will inevitably result in carbon emissions. However, they are relatively insignificant compared to the power it takes to recharge an electric car. 

Plus, driving any car (gas or electric), in general, is worse for the environment than recharging batteries for a smaller vehicle like an electric bike, especially in the long term. 

Light Design 

Riding an electric bike is also better for the lifespan of roads than driving a car, as e-bikes are much lighter than the average vehicle. Heavier forms of transportation damage roads over time, which then require repairs. Often, this involves heavy machinery that runs on diesel fuel and has high emissions.

Meanwhile, e-bikes are so light they cause little to no damage to roadways and sidewalks, resulting in fewer repairs and emissions overall.

Going the Distance

E-bikes can take you to places other vehicles simply can’t. Electric bikes are small, light and can easily handle rough terrain. Subsequently, you can either ride them to work or use them to go off-roading on your next camping trip. 

Some national parks even allow visitors to use e-bikes now. Using an e-bike to explore new places and connect with nature will inevitably foster a love for the environment and likely inspire you to look for new ways to preserve it. 

Replacing Conventional Bikes

Conventional bikes obviously don’t release any emissions and are better for the environment than cars. However, in some ways, e-bikes might even be more eco-friendly than their old-school counterparts. We’ll explain more in the next section:

Offsetting Food Emissions

While e-bikes don’t directly release any emissions as you ride, charging them does result in carbon byproducts. Still, as previously mentioned, these emissions are insignificant compared to driving a car. Moreover, if you factor in the carbon emissions associated with producing and delivering food to the rider, e-bikes may be better for the environment than traditional bikes. 

Since e-bike riders don’t need to expend as much energy to pedal, in theory, they don’t need as many calories as someone pedaling a conventional bike. In turn, this means less production and fewer food miles per person. If you look at it this way, e-biking might even be better and more energy-efficient than walking. Traveling just one kilometer by e-bike requires about five to 15 watt-hours of energy. Meanwhile, walking demands 15 to 20, depending on the person.

Lead Battery Waste 

E-bike batteries only last a year or two, on average, so a rider will have to purchase roughly five or more batteries over the bike’s lifetime. Often, these batteries are made of lead in underdeveloped countries like India and China. In fact, 95% of electric bikes in China depend on lead-acid batteries for power. This heavy metal accounts for 70% of the cell. Thus, in newer bikes with larger batteries, the lead may weigh more than 2 pounds.  

Eventually, they end up in the garbage, releasing lead into the surrounding environment. If a battery contains recycled lead, it will emit 3% of its lead mass. However, if it’s made of virgin metal, it can release 5%. 

Luckily, in industrialized countries, lead recycling rates exceed 90%. Plus, many countries are beginning to use lithium-ion batteries in place of lead. While these aren’t necessarily good for the environment, they aren’t as hazardous, plus they generally last much longer. 

Production Pitfalls

Critics have also pointed out that parts of the e-bike production process aren’t exactly environmentally friendly. For example, the mining and extraction of raw materials like lithium (or lead), copper, and aluminum inevitably pollute the environment. 

Related: The Environmental Impact of Mining

Although modern operations strive to mitigate this pollution, dust and gas still escape mines and affect animals’ natural habitat, both on land and at sea. Moreover, the energy it takes to operate these mines and excavation sites also results in carbon emissions. 

Dead fish in the Lichu River, Tibet, believed to be poisoned by a nearby lithium-mining operation
Dead fish in the Lichu River, Tibet, believed to be poisoned by a nearby lithium-mining operation

Still, the negative effects of these processes are insignificant compared to the excavation and manufacturing processes of traditional gas cars, trucks, and even larger electric vehicles. Therefore, making electric bikes is still more environmentally friendly than cars. Furthermore, the production of e-bikes likely requires the same amount of materials and energy as conventional bicycles — aside from their batteries. 

Paving the Way for E-bikes

In some places, e-bikes have become so popular, local governments have banned them. However, this isn’t because they aren’t environmentally friendly. Rather, cities like New York have done this because there simply isn’t enough room for them on roadways. To keep people safe and effectively handle the inevitable influx of e-bikes, New York and other cities around the world will have to improve their infrastructure. 

Moreover, local governments must create laws to govern e-bikers, whether that means enforcing helmet use or creating new traffic regulations. This will take time and will likely occur over the next few years as e-bikes rise in popularity and become more mainstream. 

About the Author: Dylan Bartlett

Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about a range of topics on his blog. Check out his site, Just a Regular Guide, for more, or follow Dylan on Twitter @theregularguide for frequent updates.

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