Europeans & Their Highfalutin, Pollutin’ Scooters

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

This coming summer, I will be making my 13th trip to Europe. I thoroughly enjoy the various cultures with which I come into contact, despite the sometimes thinly veiled sense of superiority that lurks beneath the surface of many Europeans. Because of that, as well as Europe’s tendency to lecture Americans on how to be good global citizens (while simultaneously destroying the Baltic Sea), I can’t resist occasionally poking back when given the opportunity.

And that opportunity is now.

Scooters are a popular form of transportation in much of the world, particularly in Asia and southern Europe. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see newly minted Russian citizen Gerard Depardieu zipping around Paris or, say, the French President slipping away from the Élysée to meet up with his mistress.

The trouble with scooters, however, is that the EU does not hold them to the same emissions standards as cars and other vehicles. As a result, they are heavy polluters, as shown in new research by European scientists in the journal Nature Communications. The pollution is so bad, the authors write, that the European Commission believes “that scooters will emit more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than all other vehicles combined in Europe by 2020.” The following chart demonstrates why:

The chart compares scooter emissions (which were measured by the researchers) with other vehicles (whose data was obtained from the literature). The four sectors of the graph represent (a) primary organic aerosols, (b) primary + secondary organic aerosols, (c) benzene, and (d) light aromatics. They also compared emissions to environmental samples taken in Asia, Europe and the United States (also obtained from the literature).

As shown, two-stroke (2S) scooters emit 100 to 1,000 times more pollution compared to cars, vans and other light-duty vehicles (LDV), as well as trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles (HDV). Notably, scooters emitted about 20 times more pollution than what is found on a road/tunnel dominated by cars. Benzene emissions are so high that the authors claim waiting behind one in traffic might actually damage your health. (Although, that claim would need to be subjected to further scrutiny.)

To further illustrate their point, the authors provided data on how air pollution dropped in two Chinese cities following bans or regulations on 2S scooters:

It should be noted that, according to the data the authors presented, air pollution is worse in the U.S. than in Europe. But, if scooters keep increasing in popularity and the EU does not tighten regulation of 2S scooter emissions, that could change. Perhaps Europeans should consider upgrading to 4S or zero-emission electric scooters.

Source: Platt SM, et al. “Two-stroke scooters are a dominant source of air pollution in many cities.” Nat Commun 5:3749 (2014). doi: 10.1038/ncomms4749