No one will argue that automobiles (whether we like them or not) play a huge role in American culture. Unfortunately, many people feel that it’s too much trouble or too expensive to go green when choosing a new car. By focusing on where cars have the most environmental impact, however, there are many easy ways to become a more sustainable car owner and use your power as a consumer to help fuel the movement toward cleaner transportation.
The Advent of ‘Car Culture’
While originally a luxury good for the social elite, over the last century the automobile has become the gold standard for transportation in the developed world. Few technological achievements have had as significant an impact on the world’s societies and economies as the proliferation of the passenger vehicle. In the US, we refer to this as the shift toward car culture.
There’s no doubt that cars make certain things in life easier. They provide us with dry commutes to work in the pouring rain and cool trips to the beach under the blistering summer sun—all from the convenient location of our garages or the curbs outside our homes. Trips that might have taken weeks, if not months, to complete in the past are now easily made in just a few short hours. In essence, our personal automobiles allow us to defy the hurdles imposed by the natural world and expand the range in which we live, shop, work and play.
While providing us with the means to overcome natural limitations that confined previous generations to cities and other concentrated development centers, cars have made us much more dependent on the natural world’s non-renewable resources than in the past. It is this dependence and its associated impact that have made the car a particularly hot topic among engineers, environmentalists and politicians alike.
Car Technology and Pollution
While cars can now take us further and get us to where we’re going faster than ever before, they still largely rely on the same basic technology that set Henry Ford’s Model T in motion over a century ago—the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. With more than 130 million passenger vehicles on the road today, Americans consume in excess of 70 billion gallons of fuel annually, pumping more than 600 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Even though progress in the form of hybrid and electric vehicles has been made, petroleum products still power 96% of America’s transportation energy needs.
In addition to their impact on climate change through the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, cars are also responsible for other forms of air pollution. Their release of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and VOCs contribute to various environmental and human health problems including smog and acid rain, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
An overview of cars and the environment would be incomplete without also briefly touching on the lifecycle of petroleum-based fuels. For gasoline and diesel, the environmental impact starts with extraction and ends when they are burned in our engines. Over the years, oil drilling and transport have destroyed ecosystems across the globe thanks to land-use changes, spills and releases of toxic chemicals. Additionally, many of the same air pollutants released from our tailpipes are also released at wells and refineries, and by the tankers and trucks that transport the fuel to our local gas stations.
The Growing Number of Cars
Each year, the number of vehicles (particularly in the developing world) continues to rise. In China alone, civilian motor-vehicle sales increased by 25% between 2007 and 2008. During the same time, sales in India rose 12%. Current estimates from various sources are up to about 40% and 25% respectively.
The same car culture that we have grown accustomed to in the US—based on the use of non-renewable energy—cannot be sustained in the future as the number of vehicles per capita continues to rise globally. The major auto manufacturers must invest in new technology and we, as consumers, need to support these investments by making environmentally responsible purchasing decisions. As consumers, we have the power to support green technology and do our part to lessen our impact on the environment.
Choosing a Green Car
To help you make your final decision on which green car is best for you, a great resource to use is FindTheBest’s Car Comparison. FindTheBest does a great job at computing an overall green rank that they refer to as their Green Expert Rating, a weighted average of EPA’s Air Pollution Score, EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Score and the GreenerCars.org Greener Choices Score. Cars with high Green Expert Ratings are considered the best ecological choices.
Some additional metrics to consider (and ones that can be applied to any vehicle) are summarized below:
- Fuel Economy: Fuel economy is typically reported in miles per gallon (mpg). Choosing a car with high gas mileage will reduce your fuel consumption, which saves you money and is good for the environment.
- Engine Size: Two metrics to look at here are horsepower and number of cylinders. All things being equal, cars with smaller, less powerful engines tend to be less expensive and more fuel-efficient. Additionally, vehicles with smaller engines require fewer resources to manufacture, which helps reduce the lifetime environmental impact of the car. For most of us who just use our cars to get to and from work everyday, we will do just fine without the eight-cylinder SUV that seats seven, tows 10,000 pounds and gets 11 miles to the gallon on the freeway.
- Engine Type: Alternative engine types such as hybrid, flex fuel and electric can be good choices for the environment; however, you should keep the following things in mind: A hybrid Escalade is not better for the environment than a strictly gas-powered SmartCar. In other words, fuel economy is more important than engine type. With regard to flex-fuel vehicles, most people who drive them never fill up their tank with flex. The environmental benefits of driving a flex-fuel-capable vehicle disappear if you only put regular gas in the tank. Lastly, the carbon footprint of electric vehicles is heavily dependent on the electricity that they use (i.e., from coal, natural gas or renewables). Studies have shown that certain electric vehicles using electricity derived from coal can actually perform worse than hybrids. So before choosing an electric vehicle, research where your electricity is coming from and do your best to purchase renewable energy when possible.
- Tire-Pressure Monitor: Low tire pressure can lower your fuel economy. Many new vehicles are equipped with tire-pressure monitoring systems (TPMs). Choosing a car with a TPM will help you keep an eye on your tire pressure and only add air when you need it.
Here is a list of helpful things that you can do with any vehicle to be more environmental:
- Drive less aggressively. Reducing speed, avoiding quick accelerations and using cruise control when possible will save fuel and reduce air pollution.
- Turn off your engine rather than let it idle if you are stopping for more than 30 seconds.
- Remove unneeded cargo from your trunk. Getting rid of excess weight will increase your gas mileage.
- Take care of your vehicle. Regular maintenance (especially replacing your air filters) can improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.
- Recycle old car parts such as batteries, tires and oil filters at a local recycling center.
- Last but certainly not least, drive less. When possible, bike, walk, use public transit or carpool. These are all fun and healthy alternatives to driving alone.
Whether we like to admit it or not, there is no doubt that car culture is still moving full steam ahead. Based on current trends, the number of cars will keep growing as developing countries produce more middle-class consumers. While we need to be building infrastructure that supports alternative modes of transportation, we should also, on a parallel path, push car manufacturers to create more fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles. We as consumers have all of the power here. We must inform ourselves so that we can buy only the most eco-friendly cars and support development of the most environmentally responsible technologies. And, at the same time, we should forgo a car if we live in an area with adequate public transportation and vote for politicians who favor expanding our public transportation options.
Sierra Club Electric Car Guide
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The above piece was contributed by guest writer, Bob Goldman.