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What really saves the climate?

The next few years are all-important for the world's climate. To comply with the Paris Climate Agreement, we must act quickly. Zero-emission zones are one measure to improve the air in our cities. But the e-car can hardly improve our CO₂ balance.

The Paris Climate Agreement commits us to limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, or better 1.5 degrees Celsius. In order to reduce our CO₂ balance, the electric car is being touted as a panacea in industrialised countries. E-cars are almost emission-free - on the roads. But a lot of CO₂ is consumed in production. Moreover, at the current rate, it would take 20 years to replace all internal combustion engines with electric cars. That's too late for the climate.

How can we do it faster?

Researchers in a study of 4,000 people from different cities, including London, Antwerp, Barcelona and Vienna, examined over 10,000 travel diary entries and compared the CO₂ balance of the different modes of transport in this way.

The result shows that cycling is 10 times as climate-friendly as driving an electric car. It is even more than 30 times as climate-friendly as driving a combustion engine. The entire life cycle of the different transport options was included in these calculations, i.e. the production, refuelling and disposal of the vehicle.

Even on individual routes, cycling is significantly more environmentally friendly than travelling by car. People who cycle every day have an 84 percent lower CO₂ balance on average.  Switching from car to bike on just one day per week saves about 3.2kg of CO₂, which is equivalent to a car journey of about 10 kilometres.

Replacing one car journey per day with cycling can even save half a tonne of CO₂ per year. This is equivalent to a flight from London to New York. If every fifth person did this, CO₂ emissions from transport in Europe could be reduced by 8 percent.

Zero-emission zones, which bar internal combustion vehicles from cities, can of course help to make the air cleaner directly on the ground. Even if they force people to either switch to newer e-cars or directly to bicycles, they cannot save the climate on their own. This is because the production of the cars themselves and the necessary infrastructure, the loading - possibly also with fossil fuels - and the disposal of the vehicles, whose technology is developing so rapidly that hardly anyone wants to buy a used e-car, consume too much CO₂ to be able to stop global warming.

So the climate's hope is to leave the car behind more often and take the bike. That way we help the climate and our health. However, the infrastructure for cycling is still lacking in many cities. The car would have to give more space to the bicycle - but in many cities this is still unthinkable.