The difficult measurement of a bicycle’s carbon footprint

Cranksets, brake pads and frames manufactured on distant continents, a battery and a motor comprising rare metals, the transport of these spare parts by boat and then by truck… The bicycle, equipped or not with electric assistance, is it really an ecological object? The question is rarely asked. “The bicycle, considered by nature as favorable to the environment, often escapes the question of its carbon footprint”admits Lucas Sola, responsible for the social and environmental responsibility of the distributor Cyclable, a network of 67 stores, who adds: “Most customers don’t ask for more. »

The stakes are not negligible, however, given the two to three million new bicycles distributed each year in France, including a growing share of electrically assisted models (650,000 in 2021).

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Defining the carbon footprint of a bicycle involves, like any exercise of its kind, a thorough calculation, especially if we reason “from the cradle to the grave”, taking into account all the successive impacts of the product, from the extraction of raw materials to its destruction, through its manufacture, its transport or the production of the energy necessary for its use. “We went around our many suppliers, and only the Trek brand carried out an in-depth study”explains Céline Forestier, CEO of the Cyclable network.

Published in September 2021, the carbon footprint of Trek, an American manufacturer which mainly produces bicycles for sports use, detailed the CO2 equivalent emissions2 of each of the parts and thus calculated the footprint of its best-selling models. This varies from 116 kilograms of CO equivalent2 for the entry-level mountain bike, worth, in France, between 500 and 1,000 euros, to 229 kilograms for an electrically assisted model whose price can go up to 13,000 euros.

diabolical calculation

The Monconvertisseurco2.fr website compares these figures with the emissions of other common products or services. Thus, the manufacture of an entry-level bike corresponds to 16 meals with beef, 3.5 smartphones or 600 kilometers by car. The top model puts out as much as 1,231 air miles, 10 cotton jeans or 194 pocket pounds.

The carbon footprint of a bicycle remains, in any case, much lower than the emissions caused by the manufacture of a car, i.e., according to a study by the Foundation for Nature and Man in 2016, 6 tonnes of equivalent CO2 (826 meals with beef) for a city car and up to 20 tons (610 smartphones) for an electric sedan. Taking fuel into consideration, “if you cover 692 kilometers with your bike instead of driving, you will avoid the equivalent of CO2 emissions2 that correspond to the manufacture of the bicycle »summarizes Trek’s sustainability report.

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