In the search for greener ways to move from A to B, many people are faced with a difficult choice: is it better to buy a used car or a brand-new one?
And whereas shopping for a car used to be a process of comparing different brands and models, now you also have to choose whether you want one you can fill up at the gas station – or plug into the wall.
On the one hand, purchasing a used car avoids all of the carbon emissions and raw materials needed to make a new one, although the fuel-economy might not be on par with today’s standards – not to mention the extra servicing and maintenance.
On the other hand, vehicle manufacturing is increasingly less carbon-intensive, and the fuel efficiency of modern cars is very impressive – making the new car carbon footprint much smaller than it used to be. And, of course, the latest cars need very little in the way of maintenance – at least for the first few years.
And then, just to make the choice even harder, we have all of the new electric vehicles hitting the market. With batteries instead of fuel tanks, they promise emission-free driving and cheap recharging at the power outlet. But do the carbon emissions of making the batteries outweigh the benefits? And is an electric car carbon footprint smaller than that of a gasoline model?
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the different options – rest assured, you’re hardly alone. With so many improvements in technology and such a strong focus on reducing carbon emissions – the choice is hardly clear-cut.
Thankfully, this article will help you select the most environmentally-friendly set of new wheels – so let’s take a closer look and find some answers.
The Carbon Footprint of Manufacturing a Car
When comparing new and used vehicles, it’s important to firstly consider the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
While there are many variables, including the model of car, the type of factory, and the country of origin, studies conclude that building a vehicle generally accounts for around 25% of its lifetime carbon footprint – including the emissions of the manufacturing supply chain. The remainder comes from the ongoing exhaust emissions, servicing, and spare parts.
Thankfully, there’s been a significant focus on reducing the carbon footprint of vehicle manufacturing, and some of the biggest names have already invested billions of dollars into accelerating the change.
German automaker BMW opened a new state-of-the-art factory in Mexico last year which, features a ground-mounted solar array covering more than 70,000 square meters. When running a full capacity, the plant should be able to produce up to 175,000 new cars every year while significantly reducing manufacturing emissions. This plant is part of BMW’s recent pledge to cut vehicle lifecycle emissions by one third by 2030 – including a new range of all-electric models.
Other major players such as GM and Ford have also set climate goals of reducing CO2 emissions, including Ford’s pledge to power all of its factories with renewable energy by 2035 – and become a carbon-neutral company by 2050.
“We can develop and make great vehicles, sustain and grow a strong business and protect our planet at the same time – in fact, those ideals complement each other.” Bob Holycross, VP of Sustainability, Ford
And so, while vehicle manufacturing still requires significant amounts of energy and materials, the uptake of renewables – combined with energy efficiency and carbon offsets – means the environmental footprint of building a new car is shrinking by the day.
The Carbon Footprint of Electric vs. Gasoline Cars
Another key decision when purchasing a new car is choosing between an electric vehicle or a traditional car powered by gasoline or diesel.
Detailed studies in the UK found that while electric vehicles (EVs) are more carbon-intensive to manufacture – due to their batteries – they quickly recoup and exceed this deficit over a relatively short period. Comparing a new Nissan Leaf EV with an average new gasoline vehicle, the research found that the EV paid off its “carbon debt” in less than two years, and had lower lifetime carbon emissions from that point on. Based on 150,000 miles over 12 years, the electric model emitted three times less carbon than its fossil fuel equivalent.
In America, studies by the Department of Energy found that while an average gasoline vehicle creates 11,435 pounds of CO2 emissions each year, an electric vehicle creates only 4,815, based on today’s average mix of clean energy in the grid. This data would suggest that as more and more renewable energy comes online – which is accelerating at an incredible rate – EV’s will only become cleaner as more time goes on.
Surveys have also found that electric vehicle owners in the US are also far more likely to have a solar system on their roof, which helps to reduce their carbon emissions even further. And while most residential solar systems are not powerful enough to run an electric vehicle entirely – they do help to widen the already significant emissions gap between electric and gasoline engines.
So, when it comes to comparing the emissions of EV’s and fossil fuel vehicles, electric cars are by far the cleaner option – even when considering today’s level of renewable energy. With growing economies of scale and improvements in battery manufacturing, the carbon footprint of producing EV’s is shrinking significantly, and they create far fewer emissions even when charged with a high mix of fossil fuels.
Of course, if you own an EV or you’re looking to buy one, it’s best to charge it with as much renewable energy as possible. To do this, you can install a solar system on your roof, switch to clean energy from your power company, or even purchase renewable energy certificates to offset the electricity use of your car.
The Environmental Impacts of Running an Old Car
If you opt for a used car instead of a new one, you must also consider the fuel economy, tailpipe emissions, and servicing requirements that come along with it. And while driving an older car might seem like a greener choice than building an entirely new one – its fuel and maintenance requirements can still leave a distinct impact on the environment.
Used vehicles can have a substantial carbon footprint associated with their servicing, maintenance, and replacement parts. Older cars generally need more oil, engine components, and many other consumables that aren’t required by newer models.
And when we compare older cars to new electric vehicles – which have around 20 moving parts rather than thousands – the maintenance requirements are light years apart. And while EV’s are not maintenance-free, they need far less attention (and replacement parts) than traditional gasoline or diesel vehicles.
The fuel-efficiency of passenger cars has vastly improved over the years, driven by government policy, refined engineering, and overall consumer demand. The average vehicle made in 2005 had a fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon, whereas the figure is now around 40 for today’s models. Naturally, the type of car and the size of its engine are factors that play a major role in its fuel consumption. Many popular V8 muscle cars released in just the last few years struggle to achieve even half of the current average fuel economy.
When it comes to pollution, a car’s fuel economy doesn’t tell the whole story. The US government has implemented dozens of strict emissions standards over the last 50 years, which have made vehicles not only more fuel-efficient – but vastly better for the environment.
“New passenger vehicles are 98-99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants compared to the 1960s.” US Environmental Protection Agency
Vehicles from the 1990s or earlier generally emit far more CO2, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide per mile than today’s new cars – meaning that they create more pollution in addition to burning more fuel.
In conclusion, buying a used car may avoid the carbon emissions of manufacturing a new one – but you should also bear in mind the lower fuel economy, higher exhaust emissions, and ongoing maintenance requirements.
In Conclusion: Is It Greener to Buy a New or Used Car?
When we use data to weigh up the carbon footprint of buying a new car vs. driving an old car, a new car is generally the greenest choice – especially if you plan to keep it for a reasonable length of time.
With less carbon-intensive manufacturing and stricter fuel-efficiency standards, new gasoline-powered vehicles have a much smaller CO2 footprint than most of their older counterparts. And with around 75% of a vehicle’s lifetime emissions created during driving and maintenance, new cars are generally better for the environment over the long-term.
That being said, if you do decide to purchase a brand-new car, an electric vehicle is by far the cleanest option. While the carbon footprint of manufacturing EV’s is slightly higher – at least for now – they can make up this difference within around two years and then offer greener driving for every subsequent mile.
Based on the detailed report by CarbonBrief, there are two key takeaways:
- Compared to new gasoline cars, EV’s have a smaller carbon footprint within around two years
- Compared to used gasoline cars, EV’s have a smaller carbon footprint within around four years
And of course, the greenhouse gasses associated with an electric vehicle shrink even further when you power it with renewable energy – either from your own household solar panels, buying green energy from your retailer, or purchasing RECs to offset your electricity use.
And for those unavoidable emissions, you can use resources such as our car carbon footprint calculator to determine your annual CO2 production – and then eliminate these emissions with carbon offsets.
But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that whether you drive a used car or a brand-new electric model, there are carbon emissions associated with every mile on the road. And ultimately, the most effective way to reduce your personal carbon footprint is to find alternatives to driving in the first place.
Where you can, we recommend that you try to avoid unnecessary trips, take public transport, rideshare with others, and walk or ride a bike. All of these options are much better for the environment and your health than getting behind the wheel – not to mention cheaper.
And regardless of how sustainable and environmentally-friendly new cars are becoming – the greenest car is always the one that you don’t buy in the first place.