1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Smoke and mirrors?

Jason StrotherMarch 28, 2013

On the streets Manila, electric-powered trikes are increasingly being used as the government tries to improve air quality. Environmentalists claim the trend does nothing to address the real issue of climate change.

An E-trike (Photo: J Strother/DW)
Image: Jason Strother

Alfredo Forelo used to drive passengers through the streets of Mandaluyong City on a conventional old Manila "trike."

It's a motorcycle with an attached sidecar that can weave around traffic and - if need be - go up onto sidewalks. He is amongst the hundreds of thousands of drivers in the Manila metropolitan area who depend on trikes to earn a living.

"I've driven a trike for eight years," says 38-year-old Forelo. "Driving helps me support my wife."

While these old motorbikes are a cheap source of income for poor drivers, like Forelo, Manila's environment is paying the price.

According to the Asia Development Bank, trikes emit an estimated 3.8 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Exhaust fumes from trikes are one reason that the government regularly warns citizens about the capital's air quality, which it links to severe respiratory diseases. Forelo says he knows first hand about that. "I get sick a lot, like from asthma or I often catch a cold or the flu", he tells DW.

An old (Photo: J Strother/DW)
The older trikes are linked with respiratory diseasesImage: Jason Strother

Breath of fresh air

But Forelo hopes those days are over. Four months ago, he traded in his gas powered trike for one that runs on a lithium ion battery. His "E-trike" is the prototype of a vehicle that the Asia Development Bank plans to mass produce and eventually replace the conventional motorcycles with. And, in turn, improve the Philippines' environment.

"Electric vehicles will play a very significant role in addressing climate change", says the Asia Development Bank's Sohail Hasnie, who heads the E-trike project. "The Philippines government spends billions on importing oil and there are a lot of inefficient ways this is used by trike drivers."

Hasnie adds that the benefits of E-trikes will be felt across the board. The government will save money and pedestrians and drivers will be able to breathe in cleaner air. The Asia Development Bank plans to put 100-thousand E-trikes on Manila's streets over the next five years.

But some environmental activists in the Philippines are not impressed by the E-trikes. Beau Baconguis, Philippines Project Manager at Greenpeace, claims these vehicles are merely substituting tailpipes for smoke stacks.

"When you plug in these hundreds of thousands of E- trikes, you will be using up a lot of electricity that is very dependent right now on coal," says Baconguis. "While the environmental impact is not direct, in terms of emissions, the emissions are coming from coal power plants when you charge your trikes."

Inside the E-trike (Photo: J Strother/DW)
Image: Jason Strother

Other observers claim the E-trike's lithium ion batteries are not a realistic energy alternative. "The problem with lithium ion batteries, they cost more and virtually zero after sale service in the country," says Red Constantino, director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities in Manila.

He says that at the moment, the lithium ion batteries can only be serviced overseas. "If one single cell breaks down, the whole battery goes kaput and there is no repair shop anywhere for such batteries."

Constantino adds that the $400-million loan the Asia Development Bank received from the Philippines government to fund the E-trike program, could have been put to better use. He says if officials really want to improve air quality, the government should improve Manila's infrastructure and make it a more pedestrian-friendly city.

"The best mode of transport is walking. If you have better sidewalks, people will walk more. Trikes encourage door-to-door transportation and they are traffic hazards," Constantino says.

A sunny solution

The Asia Development Bank's Sohail Hasnie counters the criticism of the environmentalists. He says even though E-trike drivers will depend on the power grid to recharge batteries, total carbon dioxide emissions will still be at least 40 percent lower with 100-thousand gas powered bikes off the streets.

Hasnie adds that his organization's project doesn't stop with just rolling out the E-trikes. The Asia Development Bank intends to build solar chargers and create an entirely local industry aimed at servicing the vehicles. And that will not only benefit the environment, but also the economy by creating jobs.

All 4 pictures can accompany the article on the Manila e-trikes. These were all taken by me on February 19, 2013 in Manila. I give Deutsche Welle permission to use and alter these photos for use on its website.
E-Trike Elektro Trike Manila Elektro TaxiImage: Jason Strother

"Our project is bringing all these things in together," he says. As for driver Alfredo Forelo, he says he made the right decision to get rid of his old motorbike. He's saving money on gas and transporting more passengers with his E-trike.

"It's really easy to drive and more comfortable," Forelo says. And when asked if he'd ever go back to driving a gas-powered trike, he doesn't think twice about it. "No, not again."