What Makes a Car Climate-Friendly? It Depends on Where You Live.

BY ON June 19, 2017

graphic of small climate friendly car held in the palm of a hand

I’m in the market for a new car, preferably one that has the least possible impact on climate change. Almost without thinking, I assumed that I should consider the all-electric Tesla or Bolt so that I would use no gasoline whatsoever. But a new report from Climate Central has made me stop and rethink my assumptions.

According to Climate Central, a car’s carbon footprint depends on three things:

  • whether the car uses gasoline, electricity, or a combination
  • how far you drive over time
  • where you live

It’s this last point – my location – that caught me by surprise.

Climate Central examined data for every state in the union to identify where the electricity comes from. Their conclusion? In states where electricity is generated primarily by fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, powering electric cars can generate far more emissions than are emitted when conventional cars burn gasoline. States with large proportions of hydropower, nuclear and renewables, all energy sources that minimize carbon dioxide emissions, make driving an electric car more desirable.

Hybrid and electric vehicles are sold in all 50 states. But because states like Vermont, Rhode Island, California, Idaho, New York and Nevada burn far less coal than West Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana, Climate Central says it makes more sense to buy an electric vehicle in the former states than the latter. The organization reports that in 37 states, an all-electric car is the most climate-friendly option compared to driving the most fuel efficient gas-powered car. Plug-in hybrids, which can run primarily on electricity but then switch to gasoline when they exhaust their range, are also more climate friendly than gas-only cars in most states. In 13 states, an exclusively gas powered car is the lowest emitter of carbon for 100,000 miles of driving, the measuring stick they used. However, because it makes sense to get the most miles per gallon, a conventional hybrid whose electric battery is recharged by regenerative braking in the car rather than the utility power grid, is even better to drive than a car that runs only on gasoline.

map of the united states

The Climate Central report includes a fascinating snapshot of the sources of electricity for every state, which is useful to know whether you’re in the market for a new car or not. It shows you what percentage of a state’s power comes from coal, natural gas, wood, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, and more. I was dismayed to see how little power we Marylanders get from solar and wind and how much from coal and nuclear.

The report’s website also lets you plug in your zip code to see which are the top 12 cars you should consider if you’re looking to minimize your vehicle’s climate change impact.

Since I live in Maryland, I plugged in my zip code here to see what vehicles I should at least consider if I wanted to buy a new car. Of the 12 recommendations that came up, number 1 was the BMWi3BEV 60 ah. Number 12 was the Hyundai Ioniq. What’s the difference between the two?

The BMW is all electric and emits 47,908 lbs of carbon per 100,000 miles driven.

The Hyundai is a conventional hybrid, which means it burns gasoline but gets a boost from an electric battery. It generates 57,588 lbs of carbon per 100,000 miles driven, or about a thousand pounds more of carbon per year.

On the other hand, the BMW costs about $20,000 more than the Hyundai, a not insignificant consideration. But, if I had the extra money and wanted to make the biggest dent in my vehicle’s climate change impact, the BMW should be the car I choose.

I couldn’t help but wonder how both the BMW and the Hyundai would fare next to the Tesla and the Chevy Bolt, the two electric vehicles that are gaining great acceptance among consumers because they have the greatest range per charge.

Surprisingly, neither the Bolt nor the Tesla ranked in the top 12 of my Maryland vehicle options. Using the website’s handy comparison feature, I could see that the current Tesla (not the new Model S, which will get into the market later this year) not only costs $30,000 more than the BMW, but it generates 20,000 pounds more emissions than the BMW! The Bolt is $6,000 cheaper than the BMW but generates 11,000 pounds more emissions than the BMW.

Cars are a major source of climate change. (Tweet this) Collectively, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions. Every gallon of gas burned emits around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases, with about 19 pounds of emissions per gallon coming right out a car’s tailpipe. If you’re buying a new car and reducing climate change is a priority, review the Climate Central report even before you start doing test drives. Many decisions go into the purchase of a vehicle, but for me, emissions that impact climate change are a top concern.



TOPICS: Cars and Trucks, Climate Change, Economics, Renewable Energy