There is an assumption that buying a green, low emissions or even an electric car produces the lightest carbon footprint. But studies reveal that the manufacture of all cars, even green or electric ones makes up a huge chunk of their total emissions and that keeping and caring for the same car for decades instead of buying new is often the more sustainable route.

Hybrid, electric or old car?

I recently contacted the Environmental Transport Agency who told me that:

“The tank-to-wheel fuel consumption is only part of the story. Petroleum and fuel transport and production consume energy, as well as car manufacturing and scrapping and the maintenance and infrastructure. The total energy consumption of car use is on average 54.7% higher than the tank-to-wheel energy consumption alone.”

Grey Zone

There is no black and white perspective in this debate however. Even though the manufacture of all cars, and in particular electric vehicles has a massive environmental impact, an electric vehicle, during its life on the road, will generate dramatically lower emissions if the charging source is renewable. Unfortunately this technology is yet to be properly developed or widespread and so a coal powered battery charging source makes any comparison of electric vehicle emissions to hybrid or green cars negligible, if you take into consideration manufacture. There is still potential for electric cars to be the sustainable option for the future, but the manufacturing technology, and the alternative energy needed would need serious development. As Lindsay Wilson, writing for The Energy Collective states:

“Electric cars are relatively new at a commercial scale and are dealing with issues of cost, range and charging speed. Each of which will be helped by improving batteries. Despite this they offer enormous hope for reducing carbon emissions, improving local air quality and limiting noise pollution.”

If a driver clocks up a very high mileage, it might make sense to trade a thirsty and polluting old car for a fuel-efficient newer one, but if your mileage is modest to average, it’s much less polluting to keep your car for as long as it is reliable. The problem is that this isn’t always as easy as one would hope.

Obsolescence and the current business model

Across the board within the automotive industry, vehicle manufacturers cease production of parts after a certain number of years. So even those of us who want to keep the same car on the road long term will find obstacles in our way.

So what’s the alternative? Fortunately, the growing trend for classic and vintage cars has created a gap in the market as the number of motorists sourcing spare parts has increased. In the UK companies like Mini Spares, British Parts UK, and Rimmer Brothers have grasped a business opportunity and are thriving.

Low impact car owning

David Ward is the managing director of VWHeritage, a Sussex company who provide VW classic parts and spare parts for out of production cars and buses. He is passionate about supporting people to keep the same car on the road for years, and is only too aware of the issues of sustainability associated with the automotive industry:

“Classic vehicles are part of everyones history; VW Campervans and Beetles have become iconic because so many people have fond memories of them, and for that reason it is something that so many owners cherish. However, the current business model makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, who by law have to produce parts for ten years of the car being offered for sale, thereby encouraging people to buy new when the parts supply runs out. Classic and vintage VWs were built to last, they might not be perfect, but having survived 30+ years. People want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that.”

The key is to source and purchase a car that is well designed in the first place, these are the models that tend to become classic or vintage because of the strength of both mechanical and aesthetic design. Whether you buy new or used, make sure there are companies around who will sell original or reproduction parts for that model after the parts supply from the manufacturers ceases. By keeping and caring for the same vehicle for as long as possible, and keeping mileage as low as possible, you are committing to what is currently the most sustainable way to own and use a car.

Article by David Ward, appearing courtesy 2GreenEnergy.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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