Climate change situation is critical: Here's how your car choices can help

Things you can do to lower your carbon footprint

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just issued a chilling report on how carbon emissions will catastrophically affect humans in the coming decades. Little time remains, and the effort required to do something about the problem is nothing short of monumental. The transportation sector — and the oil and utility companies that support it — play a massive role in this conversation. We cannot in good conscience read this report and not discuss it. The science is firm in the broadest terms: carbon emissions will precipitate a disaster for human life and well-being in the near future. Full stop. How bad it gets is up to us.

We report on and review personal vehicles, which aren't the largest carbon emitters by a long shot, but they are a sizable portion of the average person's carbon footprintabout 11 percent. (Incidentally, the average transatlantic flight is, per person, about the same as driving a car for half a year.) The collective choices of individuals add up, and the bottom line is that more CO2 in the atmosphere makes things worse.

Once it's there, it's hard to remove. Planting trees sounds great in theory, but trees only store on average about 48 pounds of carbon in a year – and once they're mature, that falls off significantly. A vehicle that drives 11,500 miles a year and averages 22 mpg will emit just over 10,000 pounds in a year — and these figures are from the EPA, which is relatively conservative in this regard. So, that's 210 trees just to offset one car. Research tells us that trees can't be our only mitigation strategy: they'll encroach on crop land and other natural spaces.

The simplest thing to do — not the cheapest, or easiest, we acknowledge — is to reduce your emissions. Significantly. And right now. And it may not save you money. Cars are expensive, many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and upgrading an old high-emitting vehicle to a cleaner one might not be in the cards. Consider offsetting more emissions than you personally use, if you can afford it, to help those who simply can't.

In any event, reducing CO2 emissions can and should be a top factor in your next vehicle purchasing decision. There are low-emission choices out there that meet almost every need. And if you must own a heavy carbon emitter — a track car, a Jeep for wheeling, a truck to pull your boat — you can mitigate it somewhat by buying smart and cutting back in other ways. Here are some recommendations to reduce your footprint significantly right away.

Stop viewing new EVs, hybrids, and PHEVs as money-saving devices

The savings at the pump will probably not offset the increased up-front cost of buying an electrified vehicles, but a small number of hybrids do in fact pay back quickly (the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, for instance) and hefty tax rebates for PHEVs and EVs often will wipe out much of the premium. Here is a Department of Energy calculator that can help you determine the break-even point on an individual car. Still, it's best to not think of these vehicles as a way to save money. Think of them instead as a way to reduce emissions and consume less gas, not a way to save money on gas. But there are other reasons to buy used instead of new. See below.

Buy an efficient late-model used car instead of new

And, if you can, a used EV, which are generally an exceptional value. Of the lifetime carbon emissions of a new car, 12 to 28 percent happen during production and transport from the factory to the dealership. There are too many factors here to tell you exactly how much you'll save in carbon emissions on a particular vehicle, but it's significant. At the moment, building an electric vehicle creates more carbon pollution than even a hybrid — it's all a function of the size of the battery and the vehicle that houses it. This will change over time, and there's a tipping point at which more EVs on the road outweighs the initial hit of carbon emissions. (Carbon emissions aside, late-model used cars can be more economical to own and are also reusing a large consumer good that was already produced. Reduce, reuse, and recycle!)

Know what type of source produces your home or office electricity

Before you buy a plug-in vehicle, check to see what sort of power plant makes your electricity. Your carbon footprint will vary, though, depending on your local grid mix. The DOE offers a calculator to show how an EV in your locale would compare to the average CO2 emissions per mile. If green power is not available, consider carbon offset credits.

Invest (or divest) wisely in responsible energy

Examine your investments and make sure that you're supporting companies with a commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, particularly in the energy sector, since this is directly upstream from your car or truck. This includes oil companies (some of which are pursuing renewable fuels to varying degrees) and energy producers. Voting at the ballot box is important, but so is voting with your dollars.

Look into household renewable energy to power or offset your vehicle

Look into renewable energy for your house: solar, wind, or battery storage — whether you own a plug-in vehicle or not. We don't have the space nor the expertise to recommend a particular solution for your house or workplace, but if you're refilling your EV or PHEV using renewable energy you're generating, there are considerable benefits. Your utility company may be a good starting place. Remember, there might be federal, state, or utility-provided incentives. And it doesn't necessarily mean buying hardware — some utility companies allow you to "buy" more green energy as a proportion of what your home uses, or to buy carbon credits to offset usage. Here is an example of such a program — offsetting 100 percent of a $100/month energy bill is only $8/month, and it reduces emissions by a claimed 12,000 lbs a year. That's the equivalent of parking an average car for an entire year.

Right-size your vehicle

We just have to come out and say it: going back and forth alone to an office job in a full-size pickup, SUV or gas-swilling performance car is not a good choice from a carbon standpoint. If you can afford to, park the truck except for your occasional recreational or work use, and commute in something more efficient. Smaller, lighter vehicles are good. Public transportation is better.

Drive less

We love driving, but the fact is, more miles equals more carbon emissions. The degree to which this is the case depends on what you're driving. If you consider the miles per unit of carbon emitted, you can go much further in an EV powered by home renewable energy than a traditional car. Or make your trips more efficient by carpooling, or using public/multi-modal transportation when possible. Eliminate miles when you can, and offset what you can't eliminate in other respects.

If your vehicle has a plug, use it

You don't get the full benefit of a plug-in hybrid if you're not plugging it in. If you're not filling it up, you're lugging around a heavy battery that you're not fully utilizing. If you don't realistically see yourself plugging the vehicle in all the time, get a normal hybrid that's optimized for that use case, or an extremely efficient used internal combustion vehicle.

Get involved: vote and support responsible policy

The push to reduce carbon emissions shouldn't be a partisan issue. Industrial carbon producers need a nudge to invest in controlling their emissions. This nudge can be fiscal, as noted above, or it can be political. Encourage your local politicians, whatever their affiliation, to examine the issue, particularly as it relates to the transportation sector. We don't currently have policy recommendations in this matter, but there are tons of organizations both political and nonpolitical that do.

Track your habits

It's a good idea to take a close look at your personal carbon footprint, and find areas to improve it. Tracking your habits helps. Note how much you drive, and how much you spend on fuel or electricity. There are a number of tools online (from the EPA, Carbon Footprint, and the Nature Conservancy) that offer good starting points for finding some of the places in your life where you can reduce your negative impact.

A final thought

As scientists have been explaining, and as the latest IPCC reports shows, we are at a critical point when it comes to how much carbon we put into our atmosphere. Going electric helps, but it's not the only way to make an impact. Buying used, buying small and reducing miles driven can be just as effective, and can help you save money. If you have to buy new, and can afford it, buy green. You're better off, though, getting a used but well-maintained, high-mpg car, and putting as few miles on it as possible.

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