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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  1. John - January 2, 2008

    Careful Adam,
    You almost sound like Nordhaus and Shellenberger with this one.
    :-)
    -John

  2. Tom McKinnon - January 2, 2008

    Gasoline-powered scooters are polluting and not terribly fuel efficient. This is because internal combustion engines don’t down-scale well. A scooter that weighs an order of magnitude less than its four-wheeled cousin will get just about twice the fuel economy.
    The solution, in the very near term, will be electric scooters. Unlike a gas motor, the electric motor does scale so the energy per kilometer of an electric scooter is MUCH better than a heavy car. Battery technology is still the Achilles Heel but that will be changing in the next couple of years. For example, when Chevrolet rolls out the Volt the production of large-format lithium ion batteries will skyrocket.

  3. Adam Stein - January 2, 2008

    John —
    Huh, interesting. Well, I reviewed their book fairly favorably, so perhaps not so surprising. But here’s a stab at retaining my carbon cred:
    No exotic technological breakthroughs are required to develop low-carbon, cost-effective personal transportation to the world’s poor. Rather, the technology exists today, and the private market can provide, as long as there is a proper price on carbon.
    This is a bit more complicated in the case of the developing world. Taxing carbon for people who earn a few dollars a day would be insanely regressive, so I’d rather see some sort of transfer payments for clean tech using a CDM-like mechanism.