Since motorcycles are much smaller than cars or other vehicles, you might assume they have a smaller environmental impact.
Motorcycles are not good for the environment because they release emissions such as carbon dioxide, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides.
While they are more fuel-efficient, they can release more emissions than cars.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of motorcycles.
1. How Do Motorcycles Affect the Environment?
The biggest way motorcycles affect the environment is arguably due to emissions.
Motorcycle tailpipes can emit carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM), hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Carbon dioxide is a well-known greenhouse gas.
It can stay in the atmosphere for between 300 years to 1,000 years, which is why it’s the biggest contributor to global warming.
For example, they both play a role in the formation of tropospheric ozone, which is a cause of air pollution and acts as a greenhouse gas.
PM has been linked with acid rain. These particles can also deplete the soil of nutrients, which disrupts the ecosystem and alters the pH of bodies of water, which can be harmful to marine life.
Meanwhile, hydrocarbons do act as a greenhouse gas and are even more effective than CO2 when it comes to trapping heat.
There is also the body of the motorcycle itself to consider when gauging the environmental impact.
Generally, motorcycles are made from steel and aluminum, but you might also find graphite, magnesium, and composite in a motorcycle too.
These materials are non-renewable and are sourced via mining.
Mining not only causes pollution but also physical environmental degradation due to deforestation and soil erosion, which can disrupt a pre-existing ecosystem.
With that said, motorcycles seem to last from 12 to 15 years, which is not much different from cars.
Plus, it’s not completely unheard of to see vehicles even older than that on the roads if they have been properly maintained and serviced.
So, there is not a constant demand to replace defunct motorcycles.
At the end of their lifespan, motorcycle parts can be recycled.
In fact, 80% to 100% of old scrapped motorcycles are recycled or reused, which is promising as recycling saves on energy and resources.
2. Are Motorcycles Less Harmful than Cars?
They appear to emit less carbon dioxide than cars, but when it comes to other pollutants, they’re a bigger culprit, so they are just as bad for the environment as cars, if not worse.
A two-stroke motorcycle can emit just as many PM emissions as one bus or truck powered by diesel.
As for hydrocarbons, they can emit the same as ten cars fueled by gasoline.
Motorcycles with four-stroke engines emitted more pollutants than gasoline cars, but not much more.
The motorcycles equipped with oil pumps also reduced their emissions.
Compared to passenger cars, motorcycles, in general, emit 16 times more hydrocarbons. They also emit three times more carbon monoxide.
With that said, much of this research is more than a decade old, so newer cars and motorcycles are likely to be less polluting due to technological advancements.
The volume of emissions also varies based on the brand.
Research from 2013 noted that per kilometer (0.62 miles), Volkswagen motorcycles emitted 0.573 grams of carbon dioxide, 0.040 grams of nitrogen oxides, and 0.033 grams of non-methane hydrocarbons.
Meanwhile, Fiat motorcycles released 0.403 grams of carbon dioxide, 0.037 grams of nitrogen oxides, and 0.034 grams of non-methane hydrocarbons.
General Motors motorcycles released 0.963 grams of carbon dioxide, 0.063 grams of nitrogen oxides, and 0.054 grams of non-methane hydrocarbons.
Finally, Ford motorcycles released 0.441 grams of carbon dioxide, 0.036 grams of nitrogen oxides, and 0.033 grams of non-methane hydrocarbons.
Most fuel wastage is due to idling.
For an average motorcycle, the idling emissions entailed 60.9 grams (2 oz) of carbon monoxide, 534.3 grams of carbon dioxide, 10.3 grams of hydrocarbons, and 1.8 grams of nitrogen oxides per hour.
They also lost around 180 grams (6.3 oz) of fuel per hour.
An average small car can emit 10.1 grams of CO2 per minute spent idling, which adds up to 606 grams (21.3 oz) per hour, while larger vehicles emit even more, with a truck releasing 68.6 (2.4 oz) grams per minute alone.
A small car can release 0.5 grams of nitrogen oxides per minute, which adds up to 30 grams (1 oz) per hour.
3. Do Motorcycles Waste More Gas than Cars?
How fuel-efficient vehicles are depends on the age, size, brand, and model.
With that said, overall, motorcycles seem to be more fuel-efficient than cars.
Motorcycles require less fuel than cars since they have smaller engines.
Since gasoline is a fossil fuel, a reduced demand sounds promising.
Their higher fuel efficiency is in large part due to their lighter weight.
Most motorcycles can travel at least 40 miles (64 km) per gallon (3.7 liters).
Whereas for the 2019 model year, the average US car traveled only 24.9 miles (40 miles) per gallon as larger sport utility vehicles grew in popularity.
4. What about Electric Motorcycles?
Since the biggest environmental impact of a motorcycle is the emissions, electric motorcycles will be more sustainable.
Research found that energy consumption, CO2 emissions, and energy costs for electric motorcycles were lower than that of gasoline-powered motorcycles.
Keep in mind that while electric vehicles do not have tail-pipe emissions, they’re not emission-free.
As most energy use is still reliant on fossil fuels, electricity is still not exactly sustainable.
In 2019, the US national grid produced approximately 417g (14.7 oz) of CO2e per kWh.
So, while electric vehicles are greener than fossil-fueled ones, they are still an indirect source of pollution.