Many months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is no clear end yet in sight. While several vaccine trials have entered advanced stages, there have also been disappointing setbacks. When trying to identify a silver lining of the pandemic, many point to a reduction in carbon dioxide levels—though the reductions so far cannot be detected in the atmosphere. This silver lining is particularly important on the U.S. West Coast, as many have been wearing facial coverings and using air filtration not only to combat Covid-19, but also as protection from the smoke of the wildest of wildfires scorching this area of the planet. Just as the pandemic has focused attention on some perils of modern living, it should also focus attention on the perils of climate change and the causes of it.
Increases in heat waves, droughts, wildfires, sea-levels, flooding, hurricanes, windstorms, and decreased snowpack, affecting water supply and agriculture, are just some of the anticipated adverse consequences of climate change. These consequences have already been documented in California, where warming is expected to continue, possibly leading to significantly more heat-related deaths by 2050. One of the leading culprits of climate change is the dramatic increase in greenhouse gases (GHG), which are often measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, in our atmosphere that has resulted since the industrial revolution and worsened by gas-powered vehicles.
According to the EPA, GHG emissions from transportation account for about 28% of total U.S. GHG, making transportation the largest single contributor. An increase in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases produces a warming effect, or climate forcing—a change in the Earth’s energy balance, leading to either a warming or cooling effect over time. The EPA has noted that from 1990 to 2015, the total warming effect from GHG added by humans to the Earth’s atmosphere increased by approximately 37%, while the warming effect associated with carbon dioxide alone increased by 30%.
Emissions from fossil-fuel vehicles damage our atmosphere, which, in turn, heats the Earth, resulting in droughts, sea levels rising, etc. Electric vehicles (EVs) have no tailpipe emissions. However, emissions are created during both the production and distribution of the electricity used to fuel the vehicle. Shifting away from GHG-emitting culprits is a must if there is any hope for long term reduction, and this will involve a large-scale rethinking of transportation, infrastructure, and commuting.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has caused many to forego public transportation, primarily from fear, or many others to hole up, working remotely. While a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association has determined that mass transit played no significant part in the spread of COVID-19, if those forgoing mass transit solely used fossil fuel-powered cars as a replacement, the long term effects of COVID-19 on the environment would be worrisome. However, alternatives that have flourished during the pandemic mix the past, present, and the future: the rise of both the personal “e-bike” and “personal e-scooter.”
Before the automobile became ubiquitous on roads and affordable to the masses thanks to Henry Ford’s Model T, the bicycle was one of the primary methods of personal transportation in the U.S. And, while most people in large U.S. cities were familiar with shared e-bikes and e-scooters prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, through publicly available on-demand rentals, personal ownership of such alternatives have increased as commuters’ have reduced use of public transit because of fears of contracting COVID-19. Personal e-bikes and e-scooters appear to be the next iteration of some mobility companies that have been decimated during the pandemic.
With California moving toward a ban on gas-powered cars by 2035 and China committing to carbon neutrality by 2060, electric-powered two-wheeled alternatives could mostly eliminate the short car trips—which, on average, comprise the majority of commuters’ trips—especially during the pandemic. Of course, ensuring safe passage and rights of way for alternatives to autos will be an ongoing battle for state and local governments.
When weighing the long-term safety impacts of climate change, ensuring reduction of GHG by maximizing the safety and utility of two-wheeled, electric alternatives to gas-powered vehicles should be a primary consideration by state and local government officials because failing to reduce GHG could have devastating implications. In order to maximize and promote the use of such alternatives, state and local governments must undertake a critical rethinking of existing infrastructure away from promoting the use of fuel-powered vehicles to allow for equal footing for all alternatives commuters want to use.