Buying A New Fuel Efficient Car – A Common Eco Error

new smart cars

Even if I had passed my driving test all those years ago, I don’t think I’d have a car right now because of where I live in central London. But I obviously know a load of people who do drive and have on occasion heard talk of people buying a brand new, fuel efficient, environmentally friendly car.

Now the main reason that many take this option is to save themselves some of the crippling cost of petrol, particularly if they commute for long distances each day to and from work.

But there is also a subset of people who think that they’re doing the planet a favour by buying one of these new eco cars that can travel hundreds of miles on one small thimble of fuel or that plugs into the wall right next to your home cinema system.

The problem that I have with this second train of thought is that the manufacture of a brand new vehicle leads to large quantities of CO2 being released into the atmosphere and the trade off between this and lower emissions is not quite as straightforward as you think.

In reality it makes a lot more environmental sense to buy a fairly fuel efficient 2nd hand car rather than buy anything that is brand new.

So how much is emitted during manufacturing?

This is not an easy question answer because estimates seem a little hard to come by and those that are out there vary greatly depending on the methodology used. The Guardian use the total carbon emissions of the auto industry to come up with a rather inaccurate measure per car based on the emissions per £1000 spent. This means an “average” family car produces around 17 tonnes of CO2 equivalent during production.

A report by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership puts the figure per average petrol car at more like 5.6 tonnes and also points out that building hybrids and particularly full electric cars produces significantly greater emissions than standard cars (up to 8.8 tonnes).

But emissions after that are zero right?

Well…no actually. Where do you think all that electrical juice comes from? Yep, you guessed it, all those power stations dotted around the UK.

A report by ecometrica puts the figure for electric car emissions at about 75gCO2/km – that’s 75 grams of CO2 equivalent emissions per kilometre travelled. This is based on the UK’s power generation mix – in France this figure drops to 12gCO2/km because they generate a lot of their electricity from Nuclear power.

Concentrate…here comes the maths

The government have said previously that an average car produces around 208g of CO2 per kilometre travelled (referenced from ecometrica report above). Comparing this figure to that of the electric car above, we can work out how far you’d have to drive in a brand new electric car to offset the emissions that are due to its manufacture.

To give an even more comprehensive comparison, the table below shows those same figures for a Toyota Prius petrol-electric hybrid and a 2006 Ford Focus 1.6i (the Focus has been on of the most bought cars every year for a decade). I have used the more conservative figure of 8.8 tonnes of CO2 emitted from the manufacture of an electric car.

Car Model gCO2/km gCO2/km Vs. Electric km per tonne saving km to offset manufacture (8.8 tonnes CO2)
Average Car 208 +133 7518.8 66165
Toyota Prius 89 +14 71428.5 628571
Ford Focus 163 +88 11363.6 100000

So you can see that if you swapped an average car for an electric car, you’d have to drive it for 66,165km before you were doing right by the environment. With a Ford Focus the figure is roughly 100,000km while swapping a Toyota Prius for a full electric car is obviously a bad idea as you’d have to drive for over 600,00km to account for the additional production emissions.

Of course, switching to an electric car in France makes a huge difference to these figures given its power generation mix. If the UK were to generate more power from Nuclear or renewables then the argument for buying brand new electric cars gets much stronger.

If you are thinking of switching from a gas guzzling 4×4 to an electric car than the environmental arguments are far stronger still (although I would question how many people need a 4×4 in the first place).

So what’s the answer GreenSteve?

Good question…and I was just about to come to that

I think that in an ideal world, with green car technology as it is now, existing vehicles should be driven for as long as possible – until the end of their safe and useful working life.

The only problem with this view is that many people like to upgrade their car every few years for a multitude of reasons including upsizing, downsizing, vanity, boredom and comfort. In 2010, the number of new cars sold topped 2 million and just under half were sold to private buyers.

My advice, however, would be to avoid buying a brand new car and opt for something in the 2nd hand market. No additional emissions due to manufacture are generated and fewer perfectly good cars will be sent to scrap (and scrapping requires even more energy and thus more emissions).

It may seem counterintuitive to stick with petrol or diesel powered cars but right now I think electric cars just aren’t as green as we imagine them to be. They need to be more efficient, travel further using less energy and make less of an environmental impact in their making.

If you were to switch to a 2nd hand 2009 VW Golf BlueMotion with its 119 gCO2/km, you’d have to drive the equivalent brand new electric car for around 200,000km or 124,274 miles to break even on the carbon emissions. Seeing as UK motorists drive an average of 8,430 miles a year, it would take almost 15 years to achieve this break even point.

A lot can happen in 15 years, electric cars will undoubtedly progress to higher levels of efficiency, hydrogen fuel cells could be in use as a form of propulsion, or some other breakthrough might have occurred. I don’t yet think it’s time for everyone to rush out and buy an electric car but the clock is ticking and I’m sure changes are upon us.

What sort of second hand cars should I be buying then?

Well luckily for you, I have found some websites out there that list cars with low carbon emissions. CarPages.co.uk shows many of the cars available today and groups them into an easy to follow colour coded format – just check which models are most efficient and try to find a second hand one in your local area.

The government also have a tool that allows you to see how much pollution a particular make and model generates so you can check out how your current run-around compares in the grand scheme of things.

Is there a bigger picture here?

Well to be honest with you, the future expansion of the global motor vehicle market scares me a bit. We have two countries in China and India with ever growing middle class societies hungry for cars. At 37 motor vehicles per 1000 population in China (2008) and 15 per 1000 in India (2006) the potential for growth is huge if you take these same figures for the US (809 per 1000 population – 2008) and the UK (526 per 1000 – 2008).

China is already the largest market for motor vehicles in the world but it’s going to get a whole lot bigger in a short space of time. India will not be far behind. They could both realistically grow 10-fold in a matter of decades.

The crux of the matter is that a lot of new cars will have to be built throughout the world in the coming decades but new cars are generally more expensive than old cars. Maybe I’m just spouting nonsense here but if we really want to buy new, fuel efficient cars in this country, should we not be sending our 2nd hand cars to these emerging markets so that new cars do not need to be built there too?

This way, all current vehicles are getting used to their maximum potential and emissions should be kept lower than if new cars were produced for all these new buyers.

Anyway, I digress…

My point stands – as a driver in the UK right now, don’t be lulled into buying a brand new car (electric or fuel efficient) no matter how shiny it looks and no matter how much you like that new car smell.

Are you planning on replacing your car soon? Are you going buy new or used? Share your thoughts below…

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.


2 Responses to “Buying A New Fuel Efficient Car – A Common Eco Error”

  1. December 16, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    I really like that you weigh the pros and cons. WHEN we need a new car, we’ve been thinking about the new eco cars. But then, it would be much greener if we downsized to a one car household and I just took the bus and we grocery shopped together on the weekends. Not always so easy. There isn’t always public transport, like now, when we live out in the sticks. So I like that there are options for greener cars. But I like that you lay all the facts out on the table to chew on. :)
    No easy answer…

  2. GreenSteve
    December 22, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    Yeah I can see why it’s not always easy or practical to reduce car usage but I believe every little bit helps no matter how small a gesture it is. But if you really do need a new car then by all means go for an eco one – maybe buy 2nd hand as they are a better value for money and don’t add new wheels to the road as such.

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