PARIS (AFP) – Pulling on makeshift roped hooks along a sun-drenched bank of the Seine River in Paris, Youva Hadjali and Edison Gompo fish out two electric scooters – not the most ecological fate for devices billed as a carbon-free fix for strained urban transport systems.
As city officials vow to rein in the use of wildly popular e-scooters, their short lifespans, along with the energy consumed to build and service them, have many wondering if they are as good for the environment as operators say.
Hadjali and Gompo are part of the “urban patrols” carried out by the United States (US) start-up Lime, which said the recovered units are recycled as much as possible – though the lithium-ion batteries are usually shot.
“Overall in Paris, Lime scooters have saved the equivalent of two days without any cars at all” since they arrived 16 months ago, Arthur-Louis Jacquier, head of French operations, told AFP.
Critics said such claims fail to take into account the carbon emitted in constructing the scooters and the daily collections for recharging the so-called “dockless” vehicles.
Those emissions are compounded by lifespans of barely a year, due to wear and tear but also vandalism.
They were a specific target of activists at the Extinction Rebellion protest in Paris last month, who gathered up a huge pile of the devices to denounce what they labelled “pointless pollution”.
“Scooters don’t replace cars, they motorise walking trips,” one sign said.
Studies indeed show that most scooter trips are replacing walking or biking, with just a third displacing car use, said Jeremiah Johnson of North Carolina State University.
He and his colleagues analysed use in North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, and found the electricity for charging was actually a pretty small contributor to scooters’ environmental impact.
But in terms of pollution, scooters most often end up causing a net increase in terms of global warming impacts.
“Forty per cent of the CO2 emissions are from driving around to pick these things up (for charging), and about half of the CO2 emissions are from the materials and the manufacturing of the scooter,” Johnson told AFP.
In the coming weeks, Paris will pick just three operators allowed to keep their scooters on the streets, down from around a dozen which began flooding the city last year.
Lime, which said its charging depots run on so-called clean electricity and plans to use only electric vans for pick-ups, hopes to be one of them.
It also vows to get over some embarrassing growing pains: A few months ago videos emerged showing “juicers”, as Lime calls the freelance workers who gather scooters for charging the batteries, using gas-powered electric generators.
“In just a year and a half, we went from being a firm with innovative ideas to a mass transport company,” Jacquier said of the early decision to outsource charging, something it has since ruled out.
Even so, operators must also meet the challenge of keeping scooters rolling longer.