Bike vs Car on a Hot Planet

Hanoi bike parade for climate action

E-cycles, bike highways and cutting government addiction to gas taxes

By Stephen Leahy

BERLIN, Jun 6, 2011 (IPS)

As global carbon emissions hit record-high levels last year, officials from leading Asian nations told the 2011 International Transport Forum in nearby Leipzig that their citizens want more cars.

At the same meeting, some Europeans urged a 21st century renaissance in bicycle transport, with electric and electric-assist bikes for personal health and the health of the climate.

“We in India need to provide more roads and rail,” said B.K. Chaturvedi, a member of India’s Planning Commission.

“Cycling is a miniscule thing. That’s not the future,” Chaturvedi told the nearly 800 attendees.

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“The bike is better to get around in Beijing, but bicycle use is dropping fast due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic,” said Pan Haixiao, a professor at Tongji University in China.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's Moving Planet Cycle Caravan.

The number of cars and light trucks globally is projected to triple from the current 850 million to 2.5 billion by 2050, according to the International Transport Forum’s (ITF) Transport Outlook 2011. That growth is projected to be almost entirely in the developing world.

Richer countries are actually reducing the personal vehicle use in the last few years.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s ITF is an intergovernmental organisation for the transport sector involving 52 different nations.

Transport is the second leading source of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing about 7.5 gigatonnes to the 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt) emitted in total in 2010. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported last week that humanity cannot exceed annual emissions of 32.0 Gt or it will be impossible to achieve the internationally-agreed target of below two degrees C of global warming to avoid very dangerous levels of global warming. 

IEA acknowledges that 32.0 Gt could be reached by the end of this year.

Even with significant improvements in fuel efficiency and wider use of electric vehicles, the ITF report projects that carbon emissions from the transport sector will likely grow 250 percent by 2050. That would amount to roughly 19 Gt annually from transport alone.

Berlin Tar Sands Action Bike Tour

Scientists warn that to have a 50-50 chance of staying below two degrees C, carbon emission growth must flatline by 2015 at the latest and start to decline by three percent per year. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time – emissions from the 19th century are still contributing their small share to current and future warming.

Scientists also caution that there are feedbacks in the climate system, such as the potential for large releases of carbon from melting permafrost, that have not been included in their estimations.

Bicycles, and particularly electric-assist bikes, offer an important, practical solution for mobility and significant carbon emissions reductions, Manfred Neun, president of European Cyclists’ Federation, told the conference.

The advent of lithium batteries with improved capacity-to-weight ratios now means electric bikes or e-bikes are ideal for trips up to 15 km at speeds of 25 km/hour, Neun said. The Dutch Cyclists’ Federation reported that if all car journeys up to 7.5 km would be replaced by cycling trips, carbon emissions would decrease by 2.4 million tonnes per year in the Netherlands.

Even in Europe, with its very good public transit system, about half of all car trips are six km or shorter.

To change this, the European Cyclists’ Federation sponsored the “Charter of Seville” last March in Spain. Representatives from 47 countries called on all ministers of transport to recognise the benefits of cycling, to promote cycling at the international level, and to invest substantially in cycling in their own countries.

350 London “moving aerial” of a bike

Neun was critical of Germany’s recent announcement to invest two billion euros to put one million electric cars on the road by 2020. Germany already has one million electric vehicles in the form of e-bikes but they do not receive anything like this support, he said. Lack of infrastructure such as separated bike lanes keeps bikes from wider use.

To increase bike use, South Korea is planning bicycle highways – clear plexiglass tubes elevated above highways where commuters could easily ride 20 km into work protected from rain or wind, said Kee Yeon Hwang, president of the Korea Transport Institute.

“Protected bikeways ought to be a right. It would increase the social status of bike riders,” said Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogota, Colombia.

Peñalosa started Bogota’s famous car-free Sundays where no cars were allowed in the entire city of eight million.

“We have over 500 kilometres of bikeways – some 60 kilometres that are for bikes and pedestrians only,” said Peñalosa.

However, there is enormous pressure from car owners and the construction industry to build more roads even though cars already use more space than all other modes of transport combined, he said.

There is another reason most governments do not take bicycle transport more seriously. States are dependent on major revenue streams from taxes on fuels, pointed out Tim Leunig of the London School of Economics.

“That is why governments are often eager to build new roads because that means more miles driven and more fuel tax revenue,” Leunig said.

To make the shift to other modes of transport, the tax system will have to change, he said.

First published as Bike vs Car on a Hot Planet – IPS

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