Although recycling waste is important, recycling is only one part of the three pronged mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” In addition to recycling waste, it’s important to find ways to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place and mitigate the effect we have on the environment in proactive rather than reactive ways. There are countless ways in which you can reduce waste, and switching your regular car for a hybrid car is one method I’d like to analyze today. It may feel strange to think of greenhouse gases as “waste” since they don’t fill landfills, but greenhouse gases are mostly unusable byproducts of industrial production and transportation (among other things) that are having profound effects on our climate and environment. Thus, as part of reducing waste we should be looking to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Hybrid cars have long been touted as a consumer oriented solution to increasing air pollution by reducing the amount of carbon-rich fuel that is combusted in our individual vehicles, but how much of an environmental impact can they actually make?
It’s no secret that the transportation sector, filled with gasoline guzzling, exhaust emitting vehicles, is a huge contributor to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Hybrid cars, which run both on gasoline and electricity, burn less fuel than conventional cars, thereby emitting less greenhouse gases. LiveScience explains that there are many different kinds of hybrid cars, including plug-in electric vehicles, cars with batteries that get charged when the driver uses the gasoline engine or brakes, and cars with different mixes of hybrid technologies. Although the environmental benefits vary with the type of hybrid, on average, LiveStrong reports that it’s estimated that compact, mid-size, mid-size sport utility, and SUV hybrids produce 10%, 15%, 19%, and 21% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional counterparts respectively.
However, many opponents to the hybrid car craze argue that hybrid cars actually harm the environment more due to increased emissions during production. This point is definitely important to look into. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, the production process of hybrid cars emits more greenhouse gases and uses more fossil fuels than that of conventional cars, especially due to the production of hybrid batteries. Ultimately though, the study concludes that the environmental benefits of hybrid cars strongly outweigh the environmental harms in the long term. When the National Lab ran side-by-side comparisons of hybrid and regular cars over the typical car life cycle, including production and manufacturing, operation for 160,000 miles, and fuel usage, the hybrid vehicle uses 2,300 less Btu per mile. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, this means that hybrid cars on average produce 0.35 fewer pounds of greenhouse gas per mile than regular cars, adding up to a tremendous environmental advantage over the course of the car’s lifespan. However, this only remains true for hybrid vehicles that charge their batteries themselves. For plug-in hybrids or fully electric cars, the environmental impact depends significantly on the source of the electricity they run on. According to a different Argonne National Laboratory report, plug-in hybrids that get their electricity from coal energy could actually emit up to 10% more greenhouse gas than a regular car (and 60% more than a regular hybrid). Therefore, while we may have a bit more work to do on making our energy sector more environmentally friendly, on average hybrid cars can significantly help the environment by reducing emissions and fuel usage.
There is, however, another factor we need to consider. The impact of hybrid cars can only be significant if a lot of people buy and use them. What will ten hybrid cars change if there are 20 million conventional cars on the road? The problem is that many hybrid cars tend to be more expensive than conventional equivalents, meaning that many people (particularly on the lower end of the economic spectrum) can’t afford or choose not to splurge on them. According to Edmunds, hybrids can be up to 20% more expensive than similar conventional cars, and whether or not people will save money in the long run due to lower fuel costs really depends on many factors, including fuel prices and how long you drive the car. In order to increase accessibility, many companies like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are producing cheaper, more accessible hybrid vehicles, yet they still remain slightly more expensive than regular cars. To incentivize people to buy hybrid vehicles, 37 states and the District of Columbia have implemented programs such as, “high-occupancy vehicle lane exemptions, financial incentives, vehicle inspections or emissions test exemptions, parking incentives or utility rate reductions,” according to the National Conference of State Legislators. In effect, these incentives make it cheaper and more convenient/beneficial to buy and use hybrid cars. Though it’s difficult to quantify the effect of these incentives, and although hybrid cars make up only 3% of the total car market, hybrid sales have been increasing over time.
In fact, whether it be due to increased incentives, lower costs, increasing environmental consciousness, or a mixture of many factors, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that the number of hybrid cars in the US will continue to rise as the proportion of gasoline fueled cars falls.
Even though currently hybrid cars are a relatively small presence in America, states like California which lead in transportation efficiency and hybrid car sales are already seeing environmental benefits. According to a study by Next 10, from 2011 to 2012 there was a 16% rise in alternative fuel vehicles in California, a 20.6% rise in electric vehicles, and only a 1.5% increase in overall vehicles (going to show that proportion of hybrid cars is increasing). Though other factors may confound these results, over the same time period, transportation emissions declined 0.6% even though overall emissions increased. Until we see a much larger proportion of hybrid cars being used across America, it may be hard to see significant changes in our total emissions. However, for anyone looking to do their part to save the environment and reduce their carbon footprint, I’d recommend giving a hybrid car a shot! They are environmentally friendly, and might even save you money in the long run. If you have any comments or would have liked to see me delve into another aspect of this issue, please leave it in the comments below.