I’m pretty sure that pretty much everyone in the world took notice of the developing air pollution problem in China during the last Summer Olympics. I mean how could you not? Stories were running all over the place detailing athletes coming to the games wearing masks to filter the air and efforts by the government to make the problem appear smaller than it is.
Oh, the problems of a developing nation. I’d wager that most of the problem comes from the 30-year trend of Gross National Product annual increases of 9-10% as well as the jump of car ownership from a mere 3 cars per 1000 people in 1998 to at least 39 cars per 1000 people in 2009.
So it probably comes as a relief to anyone planning on breathing in that country in the next decade that many people are beginning to opt for electric vehicles, right?
Not so fast, my friend.
According to a new study from the University of Minnesota, replacing conventional vehicles with electric cars actually would hurt the overall health of the population. This because though electric cars may not produce any pollution while they’re running, that energy still has to come from somewhere. And in China, that means coal plants.
In China, 85% of electricity production is from fossil fuels, of which roughly 90% is from coal. And while many studies look only at greenhouse gas emissions, this study focused on tiny particles released from combustion smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, such as those found in smoke and haze. These fine particles have been proven to have adverse health effects ranging from decreased lung function to irregular heartbeats and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease.
In the study, Julian Marshall and Matthew Bechle joined an international team of scientists to crunch some numbers. They calculated how much particulate matter is released from conventional vehicles versus electric vehicles via power plants. They came to the conclusion that having everyone switch to electric cars would hurt public health. Not only do the coal plants produce more pollution than the gas-powered cars, they release the pollution on a much broader scale, affecting rural inhabitants who otherwise wouldn’t have to deal with the city’s pollution woes.
However, there was a bright spot in the study – electric bikes.
Apparently, this is a trend that has yet to hit America, because I’ve never heard of them. But in China, e-bikes are the single largest adoption of alternative fuel vehicles in history. More than 100 million of them have been purchased in the past decade, and they now outnumber conventional vehicles on the road 2 to 1. Thanks to their lack of an internal combustion engine and extreme fuel efficiency, they’re much better for the public health as well as the environment than either conventional vehicles or electric vehicles.
Of course, these statistics don’t necessarily translate to other countries. Places like France, which gets nearly 80% of its energy from nuclear power, might do better with electric cars. The picture might even be different for the United States, which gets nearly 15% of its power from renewable energy sources, and often has cleaner technologies for fossil fuel power production than counterparts in China.
But still, I want to know, where the heck are these e-bikes in America?