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Scooter Pollution vs. Car Pollution – The Big Picture

15 December 2009 58,763 views 3 Comments

“Scooters pollute more than cars” –  I have seen this mentioned in many places both on the internet and newspapers. Often the articles are written by those with self-serving interests. This article lays out some facts and food for thought for scooter riders and potential scooter buyers.

PGO Metro Scooter - Courtesy of Scooter Underground

PGO Metro Scooter - Courtesy of Scooter Underground

No question – some older scooters, especially those that have been poorly maintained, are blue smoke belching beasts – no argument there. 2 stroke models are worse than 4 stroke models. Many old cars are also major polluters since they do not have any of the newr pollution abatement technologies such as catalytic converters etc.

Newer cars are great compared to older cars, especially with regard to tailpipe emissions and, in particular, greenhouse gasses and smog emissions.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are directly proportional to the amount of gas you burn, meaning two-wheelers contribute fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilometre than their four-wheeled cousins.

But that’s only one part of the air quality equation. When it comes to emissions of nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons – so-called smog-forming pollutants – motorcycles and scooters emit many times more per kilometre than cars and trucks.2 stroke scooters are much worse than 4 stroke scooters when it comes to smog forming pollutants and, when it comes to smog, are worse than most cars.

In short, scooters produce fewer greenhouse gasses (GHG’s) than automobiles and GHG’s are the primary enemy of climate change. But scooters produce a lot more smog forming emissions than an automobile. These are the emissions that put a haze in the air and provide poor air quality for breathing.

Scooters and motorcycles are getting much better but have not had to meet the same stringent standards as cars, particularly in countries such as the US, Canada, and Europe.

But how does a new scooter compare to a new car? Naturally, it depends on the type of scooter and the type of car.  For the purpose of comparison, let’s compare a scooter to a compact car with a 4 cylinder engine. For the scooter, we will look at a 50cc model and we will also compare a 2 stroke model to a 4 stroke model since there are considerable differences.

Let’s approach this from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing for the environment. Which mode of transportation for your daily commutes minimizes your adverse environmental impact?

It should be clear there is a lot more to the environmental cost of a mode of transport than just looking at the tailpipe emissions!

To take a more logical and scientific approach, let’s consider the environmental costs of:

  • Environmental cost of producing the car or scooter
  • Environmental cost of operating the car or scooter during its useful life
  • Environmental cost of disposing of or recycling the car or scooter at the end of its useful life

Environmental cost of Producing the Car or Scooter

Cars are made of large amounts of metal, plastic, paint, fabric, leather rubber & glass. They have a large lead acid battery and contain other toxic fluids such as coolants and lubricants. Many of the surfaces are chemically treated for corrosion protection.

Scooters use many of the same materials but in much smaller quantities. (For example 2 small tires rather than 5). The battery in a scooter is a fraction the size of a cars and the amount of glass including headlights is miniscule by comparison.

The energy consumed in the actual assembly of a scooter is much smaller than a car. Most reputable scooter brands are made in factories that meet ISO or similar standards as are most cars.

In short, a scooter clearly has a much smaller carbon footprint at this stage.

To be fair, a good car will last as long as 2 or 3 scooters in terms of total engine life. Even with that factored in, the scooter has a smaller carbon footprint associated with production.

Granted, the scooter can carry only 1 or two people whereas a compact car can usually carry 2 – 4 people – but how often do urban commuters carry multiple passengers?

Environmental cost of Operating the car or scooter during its useful life

In this area we have some interesting questions. No question, the scooter is using less gas to go the same distance but the car may come out the winner if you are usually carrying 3 or 4 people. The other issue is how cleanly and efficiently the fuel is being burned and how harmful are the tailpipe emissions.

If we look at a compact car, almost any compact car is producing lower smog emissions than any scooter. The compact car comes out on top for the lowest smog since it has a lot more hi-tech equipment onboard to reduce harmful tailpipe emissions.

If we look at a 2 stroke scooter, it is worse than both a compact car and a 4 stroke scooter form a smog point of view but is probably beeter than a compact car from a greenhouse gas point of view.

If we look at a 4 stroke scooter, it is likely worse than a compact car from a smog point of view and better than better than a 2 stroke scooter on all counts.

Now, let’s look at the big picture. No question the car will require much greater quantitiesof fossil fuel to travel the same distance. More gas consumed leads to a bunch of other environmental factors that must be considered:

Exploration and drilling costs

Shipping cost of the product to be refined into gas

Refining environmental costs

Environmental costs of moving the fuel to the filling stations

Obviously, something that uses more gas is going to produce a much larger carbon footprint when you look at all of these factors.

Short story, most scooters probably burn dirtier during their life than the average car and when looking at tailpipe emissions. Even so, they probably come out ahead when you take a holistic approach and look at all the factors.

Gas is the big one here, but let’s not forget all the lubricants, coolants, and batteries that a car uses during its life compared to a scooter – much more environmental cost here for the car (unless the car usually travels with 3 or 4 occupants compared to the scooter’s maximum of 2.

What about the environmental cost associated with creating parking spaces for all those cars vs scooters. No question, if a lot more people commuted on scooters we could turn a lot of parking lots into parks!

Environmental cost of Disposing of or recycling the car or scooter at the end of its useful life

When we looked at the environmental cost of production, we saw what types of materials go into the respective vehicles. Both cars and scooters are getting much better at using recycled materials in production and they are also being made of materials that can be recycled at the end of their useful life.

Scooters just use a whole lot less materials. The average 50 cc scooter weighs around 100kg whereas the average compact car weighs many times that. That just means a whole lot less material that ultimately has to be reprocessed or sent to a land fill.

Most cars will last as long as 2 or 3 scooters so, to be fair, we have to look at the disposal cost of 1 car compared to say 3 scooters.  Again, the nod goes to the scooter but probably by not as much as you would think.

I have probably left out a lot of factors here on both sides of the argument but not nearly as many as most articles do when the look just at one aspect of tailpipe emissions and draw conclusions about overall environmental impact. This misinformation of sticks in the minds of consumers and policy makers and the record needs to be made more complete.

This article hopes to provide some food for thought and some facts to set the record straight next time you hear someone say “Scooters pollute more than cars”

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3 Comments »

  • joshua said:

    if the cost of producing and disposing of car is less than of scooter, then scooter is producing more pollution in terms of cost. Where as there are more users of cars than scooters. So it depends on what scooter are emitting and what cars not and how much.

    Joshua, Water Filter System Reviews

  • mstevulak said:

    Where do you get the idea that the cost of producing and disposing of a car is less than that of a scooter – it is the other way around. I agree that the composition of the exhaust emissions is a very important factor, but it is only one factor. For example, what is the environmental cost of the production of the steel that goes into a car vs. a scooter. And the environmental cost of the tires and the upholstery and the large lead acid battery. You have to really think this through and not just get hung up on the tailpipe emissions. In the end, we would like to view transportation sources in terms of environmental cost/passenger mile but that is not all that intuitive to figure out. Even in cars, if we regulate the tailpipe emissions, we may forget about the environmental cost to produce and dispose of things like catalytic converters that are used to decrease the tailpipe emissions.
    It reminds me of the situation we are now getting into with some of the compact fluorescent light bulbs – the energy savings benefit may be offset by the environmental costs of production, mercury, etc.
    When I work it out in my own brain, the scooter is pretty damn efficient from an environmental point of view. The electric bike and the bicycle are better yet but very limited.
    Good discussion 🙂

  • Three Wheel Scooters said:

    Scooters are really useful in travelling. It also gives us comfort and with it we are more at ease.

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