Science·What on Earth?

COVID-19 fears are propelling e-bike sales, but regulations are having a braking effect

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the possibility of e-bikes as a greener commuting option and how to achieve economic growth and lower carbon emissions simultaneously.

Also: A look at tropical tree losses

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • COVID-19 fears are propelling e-bike sales, but regulations are having a braking effect
  • 2019 was another bad year for tropical forest loss
  • Making necessary emissions reductions won't necessarily harm the Canadian economy

COVID-19 fears are propelling e-bike sales, but regulations are having a braking effect

(Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Provinces across the country have been slowly relaxing physical distancing rules introduced to limit the spread of COVID-19. But as more people begin to return to work, it's raising the question of how they'll get there. 

Public transportation, which many Canadians depend on to commute, has been hit hard across the country. B.C.'s TransLink said in April it was losing $75 million a month due to decreased ridership, while ridership on the Toronto Transit Commission has dipped to less than 20 per cent of the norm. At the same time, leaders in both Ontario and Quebec have recommended riders wear masks as physical distancing becomes difficult or impossible.

Darnel Harris, an urban planner and executive director of Toronto-based mobility advocacy group Our Greenway, believes there are alternatives to both public transit and travelling in high-emission vehicles: electric bikes. 

According to a recent study by the U.K.-based Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, e-bikes have the potential to help people return to work — especially those who are hesitant to use public transport or live in areas with little to no service. 

E-bikes, which are electrically assisted bicycles that range in price from roughly $1,500 to $9,000, are a cheaper alternative to car travel — not to mention a greener one when they're charged using clean power. They can often hit speeds of 25 km/h, and give people a way to avoid crowded buses and trains.

"Crucially, it allows people to go further, easier, and expands their access to things in an efficient way," Harris said, "especially within a suburban area, where things are more spread out."

E-bikes have gained a foothold abroad. In the Netherlands, roughly 40 per cent of bikes sold last year were electric, according to Dutch industry organizations RAI and BOVAG, while in China they have been a popular replacement for motorcycles for more than a decade.

But Harris sees demand surging in North America: U.S. sales increased by 85 per cent in March, according to the New York Times, while he said Canadian businesses are struggling to keep e-bikes in stock. 

Even so, the possibility of e-bikes becoming commonplace in Canada continues to face significant hurdles. Harris said the federal government currently has insufficient safety standards in place, while Transport Canada proposed dropping all regulation of them in 2018

Harris said rules are necessary to regulate the vastly different kinds of e-bikes on the market, including the much larger cargo bikes often used in place of delivery trucks. 

Confusing or contradictory definitions of "e-bike" have led to legal troubles for some riders. In B.C., a Supreme Court judge recently upheld charges against a man who rode an e-bike without insurance, even though the man argued the law doesn't require it. 

"When people are unclear … about the law and how it applies, then of course they run the risk of offending the law," said David Hay, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in bike-related cases. For example, to be able to ride without road insurance or a license in B.C., it's required that the bicycle have limited power and that it turns off when the rider stops pedalling — a feature many e-bike models don't have. 

Hays and Harris think that definitions and regulations around e-bikes need to be updated before they'll be widely adopted in this country. 

"Whenever you get any kind of technological innovation, the law struggles to keep up," Hays said.
Jackson Weaver

Reader feedback

Our interview last week with Dan Kraus of the Nature Conservancy of Canada — and particularly his advice on taking a more laissez-faire attitude to dandelions — invited a large response from readers. Here's a sampling.

Doug Grant wrote, "It mystifies me that a plant expert would so enthusiastically defend dandelions — an invasive monoculture. The issue isn't a few here and there. It's that they'll take over if left unchecked."

Bruce Bennett, co-ordinator at the Yukon Conservation Data Centre, said, "Canada is home to at least 13 species of dandelions, and only three are non-native."

Catharine Ross wrote, "I love the old-fashioned lawns with lots of clover. I also hate the over-manicured look. One year I just let my lawn grow without cutting. I got a visit from the town bylaw officer telling me that my lawn was too high and I had to cut it. I told him I was xeriscaping, but he was having none of it."

"According to my American Webster's Dictionary, their definition of a 'weed' is 'a plant that has no economic value.' Well, us Canadians all know that the American ... measure of 'value' is strictly monetary, although that may be changing, slowly," wrote a reader who goes by Indian Joe. "As a kid in N.B. in the 1950s, a favourite spring green was dandelion leaf. Another was 'lamb's quarters.' We chewed 'spruce gum.' As a 'hippie' in the late 1960s I made tea from chamomile, raspberry leaf and wild rose berries. Slippery elm was a cold remedy. Glad to see you write an article about these 'unwanted' plants that do so much for the eco-culture."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Tropical forest loss

The amount of tree loss in tropical regions ticked up again in 2019. According to data gathered by the University of Maryland and released by Global Forest Watch, the loss of primary forest — i.e. forest areas in their original state — was nearly three per cent higher in 2019 than the year before. Wildfires in Brazil and Bolivia are among the causes of this, as is clear-cutting efforts for agricultural use and commercial mining.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Making necessary emissions cuts won't necessarily harm Canadian economy

(Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Last November, the United Nations announced that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, CO2 emissions would need to drop by 7.6 per cent annually over the next decade. 

Given that worldwide emissions are estimated to have risen by about 0.4 per cent in 2019, this seemed like an unattainable goal.

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change, however, suggests that as a result of global shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions in 2020 could drop by roughly seven per cent.

At first glance, it might appear as though a devastating economic shutdown is the only way to reach those UN targets. But some experts insist there is a way to have economic growth and still reduce emissions.

Don Drummond, an economist who worked for the federal Department of Finance for 23 years, pointed out that emissions in Canada have almost flatlined, on average, over the past few years during a period of economic growth (prior to the coronavirus pandemic).

"We've achieved higher growth with flattening emissions, and we can and should go further and achieve positive growth with declining emissions," said Drummond, an adjunct professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and former chief economist at the Toronto-Dominion Bank. "That can be done, but we need a more concentrated policy effort."

Many governments around the world are trying to stimulate their economies during the pandemic, and this could be an opportunity to funnel money into green technologies, said Corinne Le Quéré, a Canadian professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. and lead author of the Nature study.

Le Quéré said that one of the key findings of the Nature study was that the biggest drop in emissions during the pandemic has been in surface transport. This, she said, could be one sector governments could target.

That could "include everything from encouraging home-working for those who want to and who can [and] developing infrastructure for … walking or cycling."

While Drummond believes the Canadian government is likely to invest in methods to reduce emissions, he said it will likely be a long time — perhaps years — before we see stimulus packages aimed at revitalizing the economy, such as specific jobs programs.

In the meantime, he said the government can use other means to reach the 7.6 per cent emissions-reduction goal, such as disincentives — like the carbon tax on things like gasoline and heating fuels — which can be effective in bringing down emissions, particularly when that money is recycled back to people and businesses, as the federal government is doing.

Another could be investing in retrofitting buildings to make them more efficient, which would be very labour-intensive and could create more jobs. But Drummond said that would be "second best."

Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University in B.C., said transitioning to renewable energy isn't as costly as some may think it is.

He said it would cost "at most, two years of economic growth spread over a 30-year period." (In recent years, Canada has experienced annual growth in the 1.5 to 1.9 per cent range.)

Jaccard, who is currently working on the next IPCC report, said that this small sacrifice over an extended period of time is far better than the alternative: "the dramatic crashing [of] your economy because of wildfires, acidified oceans, rising seas, major storms and pandemics that can happen from climate change."

Drummond agrees, noting that concerns about emissions reductions harming the economy will likely always be around, even if they are without merit.

Canada is already on the right path, he said, and the country can ramp up its efforts to see both economic growth and a notable reduction in emissions.

"We are doing it right now, we're just not doing it enough," Drummond said. "If you asked me to move a three-tonne rock, if I can move it an inch, I'm pretty sure I can move it a foot."

Nicole Mortillaro

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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