How Green are Green Cars, Really?

Solar Race Car

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 . 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.

The Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment

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.

9 thoughts on “How Green are Green Cars, Really?”

  1. We are seeing a lot of proposals about pollution, global warming, fossil fuels, and alternative energy sources. I think they are all missing the point. The real problem is too many people on the planet using too much energy. The most basic law of physics is the law of conservation of energy. All energy, from whatever source, eventually becomes heat.

    If you create electricity from hydroelectric plants, cleaner even than nuclear plants, making the electricity creates heat. Turning the turbines creates heat, running the generators creates heat. Transmitting the electricity through wires creates heat from the electrical resistance. Using the electricity creates heat. For that matter, building the dams, turbines, and generators all create heat and often other environmental pollutants.

    It’s an unavoidable law of nature. All energy creation and use makes heat. Reduce the number of people on the planet by maybe 1/2 and most environmental problems are solved.

    Wind energy? The bird kill problem would be solved by a different design for windmills. Vertical axis designs have been demonstrated that are more efficient, do not kill birds, and are cheaper to make. Even so, when you build them and their necessary generators and electronics, you create heat and other pollutants.

    So the real problem is heat pollution, yes, there is accompanying problems of CO2 emissions, particulate pollution and all of the others. Each of those is possible to solve. But the heat pollution will remain and will continue to get worse until the world population is substantially reduced.

  2. Indeed, Europe’s system is really quite nice. We used it to get from Milan to Venice, and then after three days along the lagoons and canals, to get from Venice to Zurich for our flight home. Very nicely done and fairly inexpensive.

    But realize something!! Europe, all of it that is covered by Eurail, can fit inside the United States with a *lot* of room left over. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, to re-do America’s rail system. But you cannot just compare Europe to North America and say, “They can do, why can’t we?” It isn’t going to be that simple. Rail works better in Europe for several reasons, among them the fact that the distance between any two national Capitals is less than the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This is not a trivial issue.

    And let us also realize that a lot of land which would be needed for rail lines is tied up. Many possible rail corridors are off-limits, for various reasons including environmental ones. Again, I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but Europe’s civilization is two millennia older than North America’s (let’s not muddy the water with discussion of Pre-Columbian civilizations) and they destroyed a lot of the natural surface hundreds of years before the Vikings came to Vinland. To build a good series of rail lines that would serve every major city as well as many of the non-urban places that people would want to visit would be a herculean undertaking. And to do it right would require the cooperation of Canada and Mexico, at the least.

    I still think the development of flying cars has a greater chance of actually happening.

    BTW: as Mark has brought it up, Europe runs on diesel. You can’t buy cars that run on regular gasoline in many places, and where you can, the fuel is usually more expensive. I don’t care for the smell of American diesel, but I couldn’t smell it in Switzerland or Italy. I’m not going to jump on his bandwagon, as even the cleanest diesel has more emissions than a hybrid, but Mark still makes an interesting and valid point.

    Oh! And you should see all the Vespas and similar scooters in Milan! Thousands of the little buggers all over the place 🙂 Two gallons of diesel lasts for days, according to the people I talked to. For my money, taking big rigs off rural roads (isn’t the railroad really how freight should be long-hauled?) and restricting them on urban roads would go far to eliminating both traffic and pollution. After that, we need an attitude change, about what we *really* need to help us get around.

  3. Warning: Am about to get on a hobby horse..

    One thing I think is missing from the comparison chart is the diesel engine. Modern diesels are clean, quiet and powerful.

    For all the fuss that is made about hybrids, diesels can easily out-perform them on economy without the need for all those expensive and toxic battery chemicals.

  4. Hi all, thank you so much for the comments! This is my first blog post and I didn’t really know what to expect. I appreciate the feedback.

    Jim47: “the car’s best value is not for day-to-day use, but to get *away* from that”

    This is why it is so important to invest in rail. Europe’s rail and bus systems are so interconnected, dependable and comfortable. Also, carsharing like Zipcar are important to provide cost-effective options and flexibility for those without cars.

  5. Good article; thanks for the links to the different studies 🙂

    One thing that needs to be taken into consideration is that the greatest value of cars is *not* to get to work; it’s to get other places than that. Certainly, the commute for the vast majority of workers is onerous; all I need to do is look at my wife’s commute to get all the sampling I need on *that* score 😮 But there are already relatively-compact cities (compact compared to Los Angeles, anyway; I live one county over from L.A., and know it best) with a moderately decent public transportation system, but which still have horrid (or at least bad) air pollution problems. New York, London and Milan come to mind, and there are others. Despite L.A.’s love of the automobile, the fact is that every addition to the public transportation system has been accepted and used by more than enough people to justify the cost, yet the freeways are still clogged every workday, and often on weekends. Still far too many people in La-La-Land; no matter where you put them, no matter how tall you build the buildings (oh, did I mention the little problem of earthquakes?), we can’t build enough to house everyone who wants to live here. *Why* they want to live here is another matter, one which I won’t touch on here.

    Here’s a little secret: the car’s best value is not for day-to-day use, but to get *away* from that. There is nothing like taking a car trip up the Coast, or into the mountains. Take the family to an amusement park, or to the beach, or rock-hounding in the desert: the best way to do it is by driving there. We tried to take a bus to Disneyland, once, years ago, when we lived in Riverside. No one bothered to tell the bus drivers that the signs and schedules said that the bus stop we waited at for an hour was the one they should go to; the Saturday schedule that the *drivers* had didn’t say to stop there. Major screw-up, one which hadn’t been noticed in the months since the schedules had been printed, but then, no one had ever tried to use that stop on a weekend, so who knew? See, why leave decisions like that in the hands of (quasi-)governmental bodies when The American Way is to do it yourself?

    Getting rid of the automobile will not happen until such a time as a better mode of personal conveyance is designed. The car was *not* a new device when it came along; it was a “better” form of a very old one: the horse-and-buggy. To replace the car as we know it will require something dramatically-more efficient, but which still allows us to go where we want to go when we want to go there.

    George Jetson, where are you when we need you?

  6. Thanks for the great article. Very thoughtfully articulated and laid out with heaps of good resources. I’m with Noelle in imagining a more car-free (and hence carefree?) society. is a really great news/info source on car-free related views etc.

    Also, over at EcoWorldly, we’re hosting a week of discussion on public transportation around the world, which is generating some great discussion.

    Anyway, really just wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking article. =)

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