As our car advances into old age, I find myself pondering the question of how to drive more sustainably. Ours is by no means the worst gas-guzzler on the road, but I would be happier with better mileage. Driving to client meetings and site visits will be a necessity into the foreseeable future, no doubt about it. So in terms of my carbon footprint as a driver, what makes the most sense? Do I keep and drive our aging (1999 model), 6-cylinder vehicle into the ground? Replace it with a newer, more fuel-efficient model? And if we take the latter course, should we opt for an electric car? A hybrid? I went online in search of guidance.
First, I looked into the carbon footprint of a new car. It came as no surprise that the smaller the vehicle, the greater the fuel efficiency. With the largest SUVs and luxury cars, the footprint is so appalling that you may as well fly – not that I’m recommending that either. But even in the case of smaller cars, the embodied emissions are significant. These result from all the steps in their manufacture, from extraction of the ores, to production of parts, to transport and assembly, to further transport of the finished product. Add to this the energy costs incurred by the offices and other infrastructure involved in the making, moving and selling of cars, and – well, that “ecofriendly” new car starts to look pretty expensive in energy terms. And that’s before it’s even driven off the lot.
Then there’s the hybrid option. The consensus is that batteries for hybrid cars are even more resource-intensive than conventional batteries, though there is evidence to suggest that their improved fuel efficiency during use makes up for some of that. And if the car is well-maintained and made to last as long as possible, thereby getting more distance out of the embodied emissions, then the emissions per kilometre driven can drop proportionately over its lifetime – or so the current reasoning goes. Still, “less stuff” is a worthy axiom by which to live. If I sell or trade my older car, it’s still going to be driven by someone. Haven’t I just added to the problem by putting yet another car on the road, whatever its mileage rating?
Much depends on amount of use. Some sources suggest that if you don’t do a lot of driving to begin with, it might make more sense to keep your current vehicle until it dies a natural death. An article titled “When Used Cars Are More Ecofriendly Than New Cars” (Scientific American, 1/14/09), says:
“… your current car has already passed its manufacture and transport stage, so going forward the relevant comparison has only to do with its remaining footprint against that of a new car’s manufacture/transport and driver’s footprint—not to mention the environmental impact of either disposing of your old car or selling it to a new owner who will continue to drive it. There are environmental impacts, too, even if your old car is junked, dismantled and sold for parts… Hybrid cars—despite lower emissions and better gas mileage—actually have a larger environmental impact in their manufacture, compared to non-hybrids. The batteries that store energy for the drive train are no friend to the environment. And all-electric vehicles are only emission-free if the outlet providing the power is connected to a renewable energy source, not a coal-burning power plant.”
So – in the question of whether or not to buy, lots of variables have to be considered. Instead of trying to find a short or perfect answer, it might be best to opt for a harm-reduction approach in which a hierarchy of evils might look something like this:
- The only truly guilt-free option is to not own a car at all. Walk, bike, bus or car-share if possible.
- For those of us who can’t avoid it, maintaining a current vehicle with reasonable fuel efficiency (25 mpg or more) until its end of life is better than putting a new car on the road. Plan driving trips to be as short and efficient as possible, carpool with others, and drive a bit more slowly to save energy.
- If the car really needs replacement, then common sense recommends something smaller, newer and more fuel-efficient – but used is still better than new. If you can buy a used hybrid, that’s great. Again, maintain it and drive it until it can no longer be used.
- An added tip: When the car really has reached the point where your mechanic says it’s pointless to fix it any longer, you can still extend its useful life. Call the auto shop teacher at your local high school or community college. He/she will usually be happy to come and haul it away. The next generation of student mechanics will always need something to work on and the car is saved from the scrap yard.
If you’re thinking about replacing your old clanger, here are a few resources that might help you on the way.
The 2016 Fuel Consumption Guide – published by Natural Resources Canada, this offers fuel consumption information about 2016 model year light-duty vehicles. It can help you to compare and select the most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets your everyday needs:
Fuel Consumption Ratings — also from Natural Resources Canada, these data sets provide fuel consumption ratings and estimated CO2 emissions for new light-duty vehicles in Canada:
A downloadable pamphlet that offers lots of tips and vehicle comparisons: