If you’re a surfer who cares about our collective climate future, you may have made some changes to your surf lifestyle. Perhaps you’ve forked over the extra several hundred dollars for a yulex wetsuit, made from natural rubber rather than petrochemical neoprene. Maybe you ordered a certified “ecoboard,” constructed from a recycled core and glassed with plant-based resin. And if you’re really on it, you started offsetting the impact of your surf-trip air travel, by purchasing carbon offsets from a program like SeaTrees.
But even if you’ve checked off all of those commendable acts of climate kindness, the biggest environmental impact caused by surfing remains unaddressed. “The blind spot in the equation is how we get to the beach,” says Kevin Whilden, co-founder of Sustainable Surf. For the average surfer who isn’t jetting around the globe chasing swell, of all the actions we take and purchases we make in order to surf, it’s driving to the beach in gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles that hurts the ocean the most.
Transportation accounts for about one-third of emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and half of transportation emissions are from passenger vehicles, including light-duty trucks, SUVs and minivans, some of the most common vehicles used by American surfers and by Americans in general. (Last year, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks made up 72% of auto sales in the U.S., and that number is only expected to rise.)
Let’s examine how going for a surf contributes to those emissions. In a 2011 survey conducted by Surf First and the Surfrider Foundation, the median distance traveled by surfers to go surfing was 10 miles one way, and the median number of times they surfed per year was 97. This would mean the median surfer drove 1,940 miles per year to surf. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) estimates that there are 2.3 million surfers over the age of 18 in the country today — multiply those two numbers and surfers might be driving as many as 4.5 billion miles a year to surf. (I thought this number couldn’t possibly be correct, until I read that Americans drove 3.22 trillion miles in 2017).
Now let’s translate that to CO2 emitted: According to the EPA, 4.5 billion miles driven equates to about 2 million metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere. That’s right — two million metric tons of CO2 per year — from driving to surf.
While these are loose, non-academic calculations, the point is that most surfers’ commutes to surf are killing the ocean on which their wave riding depends. “The burning of the fossil fuels from the tailpipe causes oceans to acidify as they absorb CO2,” explains Whilden. “This also warms the ocean, bleaches coral reefs, and causes kelp forests to die off. It stops ocean circulation so there’s fewer plankton which disrupts the ocean food chain, and rising sea levels will affect the quality of the surf by causing a bad case of permanent high tide.”
It’s time for surfers to put a greater focus on mitigating the impact not just of flying to Indonesia, but of driving the 3, 10 or 20 miles to our favorite break. (In fact, short commutes in the realm of 1 to 5 miles are actually some of the most damaging, according to Whilden, because a car’s fuel economy is at its worst when the engine isn’t warmed up yet.)
For the minority of surfers who are fortunate enough to live within walking or conventional biking distance to the water, the decision to forego driving is easier, though some still have deterrents, like an impossibly steep hill that makes pedaling a conventional bike unrealistic. But most surfers live farther from the coastline, where driving has always been their only option.
For some coast-distant surfers, electric bicycles open up the possibility of car-free travel, and e-bikes are seeing a surge of popularity among surfers. E-bikes get a bad rap as being only for the lazy or the rich, for causing already crowded bike-accessible breaks like Trestles to become unbearable and even for mowing down pedestrians and analog cyclists. The sight of a horde of groms storming the beach lot on $2,000 bikes when they’re not even old enough to legally hold a job is becoming more common, and it’s easy to begrudge.
However, the good outweighs the bad of e-bikes, exponentially. While the average CO2 emitted per mile for a car is 404 grams, the CO2 cost of riding an e-bike one mile is around 4.9 grams. “Electric bikes are probably the most environmentally friendly and cheapest way to drive to the beach, if you can swing it,” says Whilden.
By “swing it,” Whilden is referring to the price of e-bikes, which can range between $1,000 for a recreational rider to $5,000 for a heavy-duty cargo bike. However, the more modestly priced bikes, when used regularly, eventually pay for themselves. If I rode a Rad Power Bikes RadRunner ($1,199) e-bike instead of my Tacoma — which gets 17 mpg — 6 miles round trip to Cardiff Reef in North County San Diego five days a week, and I estimate gas prices to be $3.50, I’d save $320/year in gas to surf. But if I also ride that e-bike for all of my local driving, for a total of 50 miles a week, I’d save $535 in gas, and that bike would almost pay for itself in two years. (I did not include the price of charging the bike because it’s so negligible — about 5 cents per charge, which typically covers 15-25 miles carrying a board.)
Lots of surfers are making the investment. Richard Benjamin, who runs repair and customization service Trestles E-Bikes out of his garage in San Clemente, has seen business quadruple since the Coronavirus shutdown began. And while he thinks most of his customers were motivated by reasons other than the environment, there’s still a significant number of San Clemente surfers who are decreasing their impact by pedaling instead of driving, even if it’s unintentional.
“Honestly it’s about time management,” says Benjamin. “An e-bike allows you to get from anywhere in San Clemente down to Lowers in 20 minutes or less, or to Sano in probably 30 minutes. I think the group that surfs Uppers and Lowers really started with the e-bikes because of how quickly you can get down there and get back, and still live your life, do your meetings and make your money.”
Josh Jones of Murf Electric Bikes agrees. His business has also spiked since Covid-19. “I think the industry was kind of on the verge of going in this direction, and then the whole pandemic fast-forwarded it,” says Jones. Among other reasons, Covid-19 catalyzed the popularity of e-bikes among surfers because as beach parking lots shut down, surfers needed another way to access the water. “People [now] have access to waves that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to without them,” he says. “I don’t know that they’re doing it to be eco-friendly, but it’s a good side effect.”
Josh Kerr exemplifies this type of rider. Kerr drives a Tundra, but unless he’s traveling a far distance from his home, his truck stays in the driveway. “I’ve had an e-bike now for about 6 to 8 years,” says Kerr, who rides a Murf. “The convenience of it lured me. You can check your local waves, and you don’t have to look for a parking spot. And these days they can last for so long, you can go like 25 mph and get anywhere way more easily.” Kerr’s whole family rides e-bikes, which are powered by the solar panels on the roof of their home.
Chris Cote is another e-bike convert, after having ridden a Super73 on the North Shore and partnering with the company back home. “It was just so fun, it’s become another fun activity and not just a utilitarian transportation method.” Still, it also serves that utilitarian role. “All my runs to the market, surf checks, going to skate the park, I jump on the bike now. I would think that it has replaced over half my local trips in the car.”
Like Kerr, Cote says the environmental benefit wasn’t the reason for his initial interest in e-bikes, but it is a welcome byproduct. “When I do think about it, it makes me happy, because I just alleviated 10 drives in the car, I alleviated the need to drive around in circles trying to find a parking spot. The fact that I’m seeing less and less cars and more and more e-bikes is very telling…it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Of course, the surge of e-bikes has come with perceived downsides. The number of surfers using them on the trail at Trestles has led to some accidents with pedestrians and fellow riders, and to much fuller lineups at relatively less crowded spots like Middles and at already-overrun Lowers. Benjamin says that some locals blame e-bikes for this influx, and there’s talk of a group advocating for banning e-bikes at Trestles.
Other e-bike skeptics point out that in most places, the electricity used to power an e-bike is derived from fossil fuels, and that mining the lithium for batteries has its own environmental cost. Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen acknowledges this, but maintains that electric transportation is still the better choice. “[Electric transportation] is unquestionably greener,” says Nelsen. “If you go electric with your transportation you’re going to significantly reduce your carbon footprint.”
The grid is greening rapidly, Nelsen points out, and many cities now have options for consumers to choose renewable energy sources. If you’re in Los Angeles, you can source 100 percent of your electricity from renewable sources by joining the Clean Power Alliance, and the state of California has set a goal to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
And for those who argue that the price tag of e-bikes relegates them to only serving as a toy for affluent surfers (you know, the same crew driving $100,000 Sprinters to the beach), the price of e-bikes is coming down as they become more popular and are more widely produced. Most e-bike sellers offer installment plans, some even interest-free. You can sign a petition in California to support AB 2667, a bill introduced this February that would provide state rebates on e-bike purchases, like the kind that already exists for electric cars.
Speaking of electric cars — they are, of course, another way that surfers can lessen the impact of driving to the beach, albeit one that requires a much larger financial investment. For those who are interested in taking the vehicular leap but daunted by the price of an electric car, or by the limited range, Whilden suggests looking at a plug-in hybrid. These cars have a small battery that will power a short trip (like the one you take to the beach every day), but also have gas engines that will take you as far as a normal car, but with much better gas economy.
There’s also a middle ground between electric bike and electric car — the electric scooter, which will go a little faster and get you slightly longer range than a bike, and cost way less than a car. Even a gas-powered scooter can at least double or triple your fuel economy.
Drastic lifestyle changes or large financial investments aren’t available to everyone. No matter how you choose to lessen the emissions of your daily or weekly trip to go surfing, the important thing is to just consider what you can do, small or large, because no matter how many beach cleanups you attend or reusable coffee cups you own, it won’t come close to the impact you can make by using less gas to go surfing.
Maybe that means getting a brand-new electric bike, scooter, or car, or maybe it just means pushing your rusted, 20-year-old single speed cruiser with your 9’4″ log strapped to the side up the hill to your house or carpooling with your friend for the 30-mile drive to Sano.
If you don’t have time for a greener commute on the weekdays — when you’re squeezing in a session before work — commit to walking on the weekends. If your truck or van is non-negotiable for Baja trips or family outings, fair, but maybe swap in a bike for solo sessions back home.
It may not seem like you’re doing much, but remember, there are roughly 2.3 million of us, and our impact, good or bad, adds up fast.