Is Your Car Doing Enough For The Climate? A New Tool Will Let You Know

Are people really still buying Suburbans?

Is Your Car Doing Enough For The Climate? A New Tool Will Let You Know
[Photo: Flickr user xersti]

The world has agreed on targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, so temperatures don’t rise any more than two degrees. Does your car help meet these goals or is it a hinderance?


A new online app from a team at MIT tells you quite definitely, and it’s even sophisticated enough to build in important local factors, like state refunds for certain vehicles and the sources of electricity in your region. The good news? Most hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric vehicles are future-proofed to keep us within the target. The bad: the average car bought in 2014 is 50% above where emissions need to be in 2030.

The Carbon Counter app features 125 electric, hybrid, and gasoline cars, ranging from the BMW i3 (the lowest footprint vehicle) to the Chevrolet Suburban (the most carbon intensive). The encouraging part of the analysis, which is laid out in full in an accompanying journal paper, is that there’s a correlation between lower emissions and price. In other words, if you want a lower-emitting vehicle, it won’t put you out of pocket–at least after you factor in all purchase, fuel, and maintenance costs.

“The general pattern that becomes clear is that lower-emissions vehicles on the market today also tend to be lower in cost,” says lead author Jessika Trancik, in an email. “One can clearly see that the alternative powertrains, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric vehicles have lower life cycle greenhouse emissions than the average internal combustion engine vehicle.”

In fact, the most popular battery electric vehicle (BEV) today, the Nissan Leaf, costs 20% less than the average internal combustion engine vehicle, once all costs are factored. The analysis is based on the proportion of overall emissions from personal vehicles today and what total vehicle miles traveled are likely to be in 2030, 2040, and 2050. It doesn’t take account of a possible shift from personal car ownership to shared mobility, which might take cars off the road and thus make meeting the target easier.

To meet climate targets for 2030, the paper says new cars need to have average carbon intensity of at least the best hybrids and plug-in hybrids. After that, we’ll need to move to full electrification of the fleet and a rapid decarbonization of the electricity system itself (by at least 40% by 2040). For now, you can play about with the app here. It’s quite fun. The dotted lines running across indicate 2030 and then 2040 targets. Customize factors for your area using the toggles in the top-right corner.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.