Cycling to Meet Europe's GHG Reductions

If bicycling is as popular in the European Union as it is in Denmark, this would result in upto a 26 percent decrease in GHG emissions for the transportation sector. Photo by Will Vanlue.

The climate change policy talks in Durban finally wrapped up and participating nations agreed to pursue a new course of action in the global fight against climate change. Despite the inspiring agreement, one thing is still unclear and that is the strategy with which the world’s nations will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve limited temperature rise. Perhaps the new study from the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) on how cycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions can play a role in defining that strategy.

We have covered the health benefits and reduced greenhouse gas emissions cycling can achieve many times on this blog and now we have one more reason to talk about it. The study by the ECF defines and emphasizes the environmental advantages of cycling, looking at the entire life-cycle of bicycles, electronic bicycles and private vehicles. The study doesn’t recognize cycling as a “zero emissions” mode of transport. In fact, the study explains, labeling cycling as a zero emissions option would be misleading with respect to its production. Instead, the analysis accounts for every step in getting people from point A to point B, even including the GHG emissions of the food intake of cyclists. Here are the phases the study takes into account:

  • The production phase, which includes the energy and material inputs required to manufacture the vehicle.
  • The operation phase, which includes fuel production and utilization.
  • The  maintenance phase, which includes all activity required to keep a vehicle as safe as possible on the road.

The study finds that if cycling across the EU’s 27 nations was as widespread as it is in Denmark alone, then bicycling can help reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions for the transportation sector by up to 26 percent. Though, the percentage reduction would vary depending on which transport mode the bicycle replaces. This could go a long way in helping the EU achieve its much-needed goal of a 60 percent GHG reduction for the transportation sector by 2050.

If we consider the current GHG reduction targets of the EU, an individual would only be able to travel 2,170 kilometers (1,348 miles) by car, 5,822 kilometers by bus (3,618 miles), and 28,000 kilometers (17,398 miles) by bicycle per year. So basically, if you wanted to limit your driving to meet the EU GHG reductions, you would only be able to drive 1,348 miles per year, which, if you’re traveling at 60 miles per hour, would be about only 23 hours of continuous driving per year.

With the entire life-cycle included in the calculation, bicycles release about 21 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per passenger-kilometer traveled. Of the 21 grams of CO2e cycling produces, 16 grams come from the “fuel” (food) of the cyclist and only 5 grams come from the production and maintenance of the bike. An electric bicycle, a bicycle with an electric motor, releases 22 grams of CO2e, very close to a pedal-powered bicycle. But these numbers get a little bit larger when we start discussing cars.

Similar to its analysis of the life-cycle emissions of bicycles, the study repeats this methodology for passenger cars. “A car’s carbon footprint cannot be based on fuel consumption alone,” the study explains. “The production of raw material and the process of manufacturing a car have an important impact on its overall GHG emissions.”

The study looks at every factor that goes into operating a vehicle, from its production to sitting in traffic, and concludes that a car emits 271 grams of CO2e per passenger-kilometer. That is nearly 15 times more than emissions from bicycles! And this value doesn’t even include the emissions from air-conditioning in cars, which would add an additional 10 to 20 grams per vehicle-kilometer.

Overall, the study has some interesting facts and figures, and a thorough analysis and comparison of GHG emissions from bicycles and private vehicles. The study’s findings point to the urgent need for more policies that encourage cycling, create safe infrastructure for alternative modes of transport and inspire behavior change. It’s alarming and a bit discouraging to see how far we have to travel to attain healthier levels of emissions in our atmosphere, but it’s inspiring to see that we have the tools to achieve this goal.

What do you think of this study? Does it inspire you to cycle more?

Here are some infographics by EFC based on the study’s findings. Click on the image to go to its source.


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