With all the hype over hybrid, biodiesel, electric and hydrogen cars, we need to ask how much better are these new breeds for the environment. Will these cars really bring on a sustainable revolution in transportation, or will we need to turn to transportation in darker shades of green?
Biofuel was hopeful at first, until the price of competing grains increased as farmers devoted more of their land to grow corn for biofuel, leaving less land to grow other crops. Now, according to the Telegraph UK, animal habitats are being destroyed as land around the world is being converted to grow biofuel crops.
You have probably heard of the CNW Marketing study that the H3 Hummer has less of an impact on the environment than the Prius. This has since been rebuked by MIT, Union of Concerned Scientists and Rocky Mountain’s Argonne National Lab. Those studies were based on lifecycle analysis. The lifecycle of a vehicle includes all the steps required to provide the fuel, to manufacture the vehicle, to operate and maintain the vehicle, and to discard and recycle the vehicle.
Manufacture and disposal of vehicles produce only about 10 percent of GHG emissions and energy use, compared to 90 percent during vehicle use, according to Greencars.org . However, there are many other negative effects of auto production.
Environmental Defense found that in 1996 the US produced 600 million tons of waste material mining ore for automotive production. Mining releases toxic chemicals and ruins natural habitat. Pre-assembly manufacturing uses energy, and produces solid wastes and CO2. In the US each year, painting and coating cars produces 40 million pounds of air releases and 24 million pounds of hazardous wastes. Joining parts with toxic adhesives also produces VOC emissions and toxic wastes. To balance some of these impacts, up to 75 percent of the car is recycled.
According to an MIT report entitled On the Road in 2020: A life-cycle analysis of new automobile technologies a vehicle that uses compressed natural gas as fuel with an internal combustion engine (ICE) and hybrid technology would emit the least amount of GHG emissions over its lifecycle, about half as much as a regular gasoline ICE vehicle. A diesel ICE hybrid vehicle would use the least amount of energy, half as much as the regular gasoline vehicle.
In another lifecycle study, The Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment determined that the car with the least impact would be an electric car run on hydroelectric energy.
However, according to MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment these vehicle technologies will not affect our consumption levels until they are in widespread use, which may take up to 20-50 years. By that time it may be too late.
Even if we may be able to drive electric vehicles on renewable non-polluting energy, there are still indirect impacts of cars on the environment. Cars lead to sprawl, which uses up farmland and animal habitat, encouraging increased vehicle miles traveled. Roads also fragment animal habitat and leach toxins into groundwater. Building and maintenance of roads pollute the environment. Dependence on cars decreases community interaction within one’s neighborhood and makes it less likely for people to get daily exercise–not to mention noise pollution and deaths.
Maybe a better option is to create communities that are easier and safer to get around without a car. Safe, comfortable and interesting environments with useful destinations within a quarter-mile encourage people to walk and bike. I can bet that light rail is safer, holds higher capacities and is less expensive to maintain compared to cars and roads. Carsharing and carpooling are also options for times when it is necessary to use a car.
Maybe when we are able to vote in politicians who do not succumb to car-friendly lobbyists will we be able to think outside the car, so to say, and build healthy and vibrant communities where the better choice really is the most desirable.