Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Bike Revolution

Beijing :: Tricycle and Bike
China is known as the kingdom of bikes. Most streets in Beijing are designated with bicycle lanes. So if you're in Beijing, visiting places on a bike might be a good idea. Beware though, if you're on the busier streets. Chinese drivers can be horrifying. It is not rare to see a car or two driving on the pedestrian lanes!

While a big part of the population now own cars, bicycles of sorts still remain as a popular mode of transportation in Beijing.

There's the tricycle, which is favored by street hawkers selling fruits and ice-creams and cold drinks. Then there's the modified tricycle taxi, which resembles an upgraded Thai tuk-tuk with an armor shield around it. Then, there's the electric bike (a.k.a. "e-bike"), which is so quiet that it takes the unwary pedestrians by surprise.

In many other countries, the reception towards electric cars is lukewarm. In Spain for example, despite the government's push for greener transportation, only 16 electric cars were registered in the first seven months of the year 2010. While electric car makers are still struggling for a bigger piece of the market share, e-bikes are now a boom in China. In fact, the country has 4 times as many e-bikes on the road as cars.

Score one for China in pushing for green transportation? That was what I thought at first too, but not so fast. Because e-bikes rely on lead-acid batteries, the e-bike boom brings with it a bigger problem - lead poisoning. Each e-bike uses a lead-acid battery a year. And 3 kg of lead is being released to the environment, during the process of producing one lead-acid battery. Current estimates put the number of e-bikes in China 140 million. You don't have to do the math to figure out how detrimental are the effects that e-bikes bring to the environment.

At the same time, the solar energy boom in China is also contributing to the same problem. During the STeLA Forum, we were brought to a factory manufacturing solar panels. Despite the modest scale of the factory, business is booming. The engineer proudly explained that the company is also manufacturing solar-powered street lamps. This is a result of the government's push for green energy. What he failed to mention is that each street lamp also comes with an lead-acid battery and thus, again, our green solution turns out to be another two-edged sword.

At first glance, China seems to be making great progress in its green initiatives. But alas, that's only true if we are naive enough to overlook the other issues China's  green "solutions" bring with them. It's no job-well-done if we are merely trading one problem for another.

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