Here I am, about 6 months into my eco-decade – 10 years I’m dedicating to having the biggest possible net positive impact on the environment. At this point in my exploration, about all I’ve discovered is that I’m an eco-hypocrite. I’m unwilling to give up all but the smallest conveniences and creature comforts for the sake of the habitability of the planet. Clothesline instead of a dryer? I don’t think so.
So I need a big eco-win. And I thought I knew what it would be: a shiny new electric car. At first I had my sights set on a Prius – the quintessential hybrid, ubiquitous in these parts. But then I thought No. I’m going even one step FURTHER in the name of Mother Earth. Electric, my friends, all the way. 100%.
My dream eco-car? The Nissan Leaf. Preferably in baby blue, the color the clear sky will be when I’ve rocked this eco-challenge. The Leaf is cute, and reasonably priced at about $30,000, minus the federal tax credit of $7500 and California’s $2500 rebate – so only $20,000 really. It gets about 80 miles per charge, which is plenty for our family’s around-town and carpooling needs.
Our current cars both date back to the year 2000: a Lexus 300 SUV, which is averaging a painful 18 mpg, and a Volkswagen Golf, slightly better at about 30 mpg. I feel we are ready for a change.
So imagine my shock when I raise the subject with my dear husband, and he says, “It’s better for the environment to keep driving our old cars.”
WHAT??? What he says must be true, because my husband is always right. (He is right because of a deal we struck early in our relationship: He’s always right, and it’s always his fault. I later learned this was bad negotiating on my part. Many husbands only get the fault half of the deal. But I digress.)
Sure enough, I start investigating, and guess what? A LOT of fossil fuels are burned to produce the energy to manufacture a car. According to The Guardian, around 6 to 35 tons of CO2 are emitted in the manufacture of a car. (The analysis is explained further here in metric and therefore largely incomprehensible.)
Depending how many miles you drive the car over its lifetime, and how fuel-efficient it is, the manufacturing CO2 emissions may be around the SAME as the driving CO2 emissions. In other words, your total emissions-per-mile-driven doubles when you take into account the manufacturing emissions.
Let me put this another way, in case you’re having as much trouble as I did accepting this fact: The very manufacturing – the mere creation of your car -- generally produces about half of its carbon emissions. Before you have even driven it silently off the lot, you’ve spewed around 15 TONS of CO2 into the atmosphere. And you do have to take into account the manufacturing emissions, or you are just lying to yourself. Lying is bad. Even if it gets you the car you want.
The emissions-per-mile goes down the more miles you drive the car. Getting 200,000 miles over the life of your car, rather than scrapping it at 100,000, can help cut the emissions-per-mile in half. So, Gerald said, better to keep our old cars, and drive them as long as possible.
Yes, Gerald is right, but I am not willing to let go of my dream that easily. Isn’t it just a question of who’s driving the gas-guzzler? I ask. If we sell our old car, it’s still getting driven for its natural life – just by someone else. That someone else (let’s call him Mr. X) would have bought a used car anyway. (That’s just the kind of guy he is.) And to buy OUR car, Mr X is selling HIS car to someone else who was going to buy a used car anyway. So all the cars are still being driven by someone for as long as they function. Only the drivers’ names are changing. So we still have the same number of cars in the world, right? I sit back smugly. I’ve got this.
Nope. By buying a new car, we create the demand to manufacture that new car. Gerald is kind enough to explain with this example:
By keeping your car longer, you’re doing more good for the environment than you would EVEN if you always bought electric cars.
Wait, I say in a last desperate attempt. But if we buy an electric car, the only emissions are the manufacturing emissions. The car does not even have an exhaust pipe. So with a new electric car, with every mile we drive, we are diminishing its emissions-per-mile. At this rate, surely the electric car will surpass a gas guzzler in eco-benefits in no time.
Turns out this, too, is not a great argument. For one thing, even electric cars require energy to operate: Electricity. A few cities now get all their electricity from sources free of CO2, like solar and wind, but most cities still get their electricity from burning fossil fuels (including coal), or at best from a mix of renewable and fossil fuels. Our energy supplier, PG&E, gets around 20% of its energy from renewable sources.
For another thing, electric cars operate on batteries, which don’t yet last all that long. For instance, the lithium ion battery of the Tesla Roadster is only good for about 5 years or 100,000 miles. And, as I know from my cell phone and camera, batteries degrade over time. It’s just not clear at this early stage how long electric car batteries will last. New batteries cost – you guessed it – well, yes, a lot of money -- but also lots of CO2 emissions to extract and fabricate the materials, and produce and install in the car.
Net net, we already have our old cars. The manufacturing emissions already happened. We’re right in the middle of lowering our emissions-per-mile. So it makes the most environmental sense to keep driving them. Dammit.
Under what conditions would it be eco-better to buy an electric car?
Until then, I think I’ll look into leasing.