The world is a mess. Political controversy is rampant, Falcons are in the Super Bowl, Prince is dead…the list goes on. However, something on the forefront of everyone’s mind (well, at least 98% of scientists’ minds) is the catastrophic carbon footprint humans are leaving on the earth. According to a group of scientists from Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, “no past event perfectly parallels…the unprecedented rapidity of CO2 release currently taking place.” One option many people turn to today in an effort to combat this catastrophe is hybrid and electric cars, such as the gas sipping Toyota Prius and the sexy Teslas. But are these cars really as environmentally friendly as they seem?
In 2007, a study by CNW Marketing Research, Inc., called “Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal,” took the internet by storm. The research shockingly concluded that when you looked at a car’s life from beginning of production to its complete demise‒from “dust to dust”‒the Toyota Prius was actually worse for the environment than a Hummer SUV. Making a Prius calls for diverse and sparse metals; an example is nickel used to make the car’s battery. This one metal is mined in Canada, refined in Europe, turned into foam in China, and then shipped to Japan where it is put in the car. The emissions from all that mining, processing, and shipping add up. According to an in-depth study by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, hybrid cars do, in fact, require more energy to produce than conventional cars, emitting more greenhouse gases and burning more fossil fuels during the manufacturing process. So when all the data is added up, from “dust to dust,” the study concluded that the Prius is actually worse than a Hummer.
These results were so shocking that science even decided to take a harder look‒thankfully so. It was made clearer that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet when a report by the Pacific Institute concluded:
Closer inspection suggests that the [Dust to Dust] report’s conclusions rely on faulty methods of analysis, untenable assumptions, selective use and presentation of data, and a complete lack of peer review. Even the most cursory look reveals serious biases and flaws: the average Hummer H1 is assumed to travel 379,000 miles and last for 35 years, while the average Prius is assumed to last only 109,000 miles over less than 12 years. These selective and unsupported assumptions distort the final results. A quick re-analysis with peer-reviewed data leads to completely opposite conclusions: the life-cycle energy requirements of hybrids and smaller cars are far lower than Hummers and other large SUVs. CNW should either release its full report, including methods, assumptions, and data, or the public should ignore its conclusions. Unfortunately, “Dust to Dust” has already distorted the public debate.
So, a Prius is evidently better for the environment than a conventional car, even when everything is taken into account.
Despite this evidence, some still argue that electric cars are bad for the environment. In many regards, they are correct. Check out Adam Connover’s “Adam Ruins Everything” on the topic. I love this show, but we must take Adam’s arguments with a grain of salt. He focuses on a plug-in Tesla, and assumes the subject is buying a car simply because he wants one, not because he just needs a new car. Taking these two things into account, yes, buying an electric car can be much worse than keeping what you’ve got. It is important to note full electric plug in cars are different than hybrids, and depending where you live, possibly worse. “More than 45 percent of electricity in the U.S. is generated by coal-powered plants. According to another Argonne National Laboratory report, if a plug-in hybrid charges from coal-generated electricity, it could be responsible for emitting up to 10 percent more greenhouse gasses than a conventional vehicle and up to 60 percent more than a standard hybrid.” So yes, a plug in electric car, despite zero actual emissions being produced directly from the car, can end up causing more environmental damage than a conventional vehicle. Still, as the aforementioned Pacific Institute report concluded, hybrids are the best option overall. Furthermore, a study conducted by the same Argonne National Laboratory comparing conventional and hybrid vehicles “over their entire life cycle, which includes vehicle production, vehicle operation and the energy required to produce fuel for both cars” concluded that assuming “both vehicles travel 160,000 miles (257,495 kilometers) over their lifetime, the conventional vehicle requires 6,500 Btu of energy per mile compared to 4,200 Btu per mile for a hybrid. That higher energy input results in far greater lifetime greenhouse gas emissions for conventional vehicles compared to hybrids, more than 1.1 pounds (500 grams) per mile compared to 0.75 pounds (340 grams) per mile.”
New cars are bad no matter what. The process of building any car is terrible for the environment. If you need a new car and want to look out for the environment at the same time, a hybrid like the Prius is going to be your best bet. However, if your current car is fine, or better yet, if you don’t drive at all, nature would much rather you stick with what you’ve got. Reduce, reuse, and recycle--in that order.