People like flashy new cars over used cars despite the environmental implications and huge cost savings for no-car families. I never had the luxury of driving in a new car when I was a kid. My dad insisted on patching jalopies together. My starkest memory was at the age of 5 in my dad's old white Chevy, more rust than white. En route to Kentucky Fried Chicken the muffler fell off. It was a dark and stormy night. Dad covered in mud, I ended up holding on to the muffler via a rope, the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the other hand. The price I paid for my parent's need to stretch money: total embarrassment.
As an editor of a green news site I am now an advocate for buying things the greener way. Matt Tumbridge, a friend of mine who is the editor of a UK used car information site, favors used car sales and believes that shopping used is more environmentally friendly than a new "green" car purchase. He's sent me a bunch of statistics and links to prove his point.
"Just five years ago carbon dioxide emitted per km from new cars was dramatically less than from used cars," he says. "But the advances in engine technology that made that drop in carbon dioxide possible have now bedded into the used car market. The greenest new cars in the USA emit around 100 g/km of carbon dioxide (Toyota's Prius is 89g/km, for example) yet you can buy a three-year-old Smart car for $8500 USD (half the new price) which only emits 130 g/km.
That car took around 6 tons of carbon dioxide to make and at 3-years-old has around 32,000 km on the clock. So it has another 128,000 kms of reliable life. Or, go for double benefit and buy a 3-year-old Prius with 100,000 km on the clock for 14,000 USD. Until the next wave of engine development sees a heavy drop in carbon dioxide the responsible green motorist should be looking to buy used cars like this. That way the emissions for each km the car does in its lifetime will drop by getting more use from the initial manufacturing emissions."
And while the feel-good association is there, Tumbridge points to an in-depth study (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory which shows that hybrid cars do, in fact, require more energy to produce than conventional cars. The are emitting more greenhouse gases and burning more fossil fuels during the manufacturing process.
The production of hybrid batteries, in particular, requires much more energy than producing a standard car battery and results in higher emission levels of gases like sulfur oxide. Then there is the question of what to do with the battery when its life has ended.
Keeping cars running longer, with tune-ups and maintenance and retrofitting them to biodiesel for instance, can save you 10 to 20 percent of a vehicle's total lifetime greenhouse gas emissions which would be released during the manufacturing stage alone (Californian Energy Commission 2007 study) Buying a used car for weekend travels, and taking the bus to work, is an even better idea.
As for my parents: as he got older my dad became more concerned about reliability. No longer a young man who can fly under the chassis to repair a muffler in the middle of a storm, he is more intent on buying new cars to give him and my mother peace of mind. If America, and the world, could create a more democratic and sustainable way of getting used cars fixed and ready for re-sale -- by making parts universal and longer lasting -- there'd be less reasons for buying any car at all. We'd keep them for years. But as my fourth grade teacher taught me: car manufacturers could build cars to last 100 years. The problem is that it's just not good for business.