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Scooter planet

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In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the Times ran two nearly identical articles on the rocketing popularity of motor scooters in the developing world, one focusing on Iraq, the other on Laos. Although neither article mentions global warming, the pieces do neatly wind together some of the threads that will continue to pressure our climate system well into this century.

The first thread is the rise of China as the world’s factory floor. In this case, cheap Chinese bikes are flooding foreign markets. Available for as little as $440, these scooters are within reach of the very poor.

Of course, a scooter with a 110cc engine is far more fuel efficient than a car, but far more polluting than the walking or bicycling it tends to replace. This is the second thread: the energy intensity of economic development. Scooters aren’t just a convenience in rural Laos or urban Iraq. They provide a vital link to markets and medical care.

The pineapples that grow on the steep hills above the Mekong River are especially sweet, the red and orange chilies unusually spicy, and the spring onions and watercress retain the freshness of the mountain dew.

For years, getting this prized produce to market meant that someone had to carry a giant basket on a back-breaking, daylong trek down narrow mountain trails cutting through the jungle…

The improvised bamboo stretchers that villagers here used as recently as a decade ago to carry the gravely ill on foot are history. In a village of 150 families, Mr. Wu counts 44 Chinese motorcycles. There were none five years ago.

I don’t see any particularly easy solutions here. In the wealthy and wasteful U.S., we can achieve a lot of easy and inexpensive emissions reductions simply by tightening efficiency standards and deploying already available technology. In the developing world, the equation is different.

As in so many other areas, I suppose we have to hope for and encourage technology leapfrogging. A bounty awaits the entrepreneur who can come up with a cheap, rugged electric scooter (and, presumably, a way to charge it off-grid).

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