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Buying A New Car Can Trim Your Carbon Footprint, But There's More To It


All the recent talk about curbing climate change has many wondering how they can reduce their carbon footprint. Some are switching to more environmentally friendly vehicles. NPR's John Ydstie takes a look at what you should know if you're thinking about getting a new car.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: I started by calling Sport Chevrolet in Silver Spring, Md., to find out what options I might have if I traded in my gas-burning car for an electric or a hybrid. They told me to come by one morning and have a look, so I did. And salesman Norm Kristall started out showing me a small electric car called a Chevy Spark.

NORM KRISTALL: Well, it's a commuter vehicle, and we hope that most people who buy it are just driving a certain amount of miles every day. It gets up to 80 miles, so...

YDSTIE: So around 80 miles on a single charge but no auxiliary gas engine. So when the battery dies, you're stuck. We decided to go for a ride.

KRISTALL: Kind of a very quiet start, almost like a space ship. You know, there's no engine sound when you turn it on.

YDSTIE: Other companies also make this kind of four-seater commuter car. The Nissan leaf was one of the first. Dan Sperling, co-director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at the University of California, Davis, says there are a number of things you should consider before you buy an electric car. First, do you just need a car for commuting or other relatively short trips, and what fuel produces the electricity you will use to charge it?

DAN SPERLING: If you buy an electric car in an area where the electricity is made mostly from coal, your car will be the same or possibly even a little worse than a gasoline car.

YDSTIE: Ouch. To find out the source of your electrical energy, search EPA power profiler, and enter your ZIP code. If you'd like an electric car for commuting but need a car with a longer range for weekend trips, you could consider a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt or the Toyota Prius Plug-in hybrid. Sperling says they typically have a 25- to 50-mile all-electric range, enough for most people's commute. Of course, the cost of a new electric or a hybrid is also a big consideration. Sperling says these days, many are quite affordable partly because automakers are selling them below cost to try to build a market.

SPERLING: So you can actually get an electric car now for a very low price.

YDSTIE: Some are available for less than $20,000 after subtracting a $7,500 tax credit from the federal government, and many states provide tax incentives, too. There is another thing to consider in making a decision, and that's the amount of carbon emitted in manufacturing a new car.

SPERLING: Ten to 15 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from that car over the life of the car would be associated with the manufacturing.

YDSTIE: So, Sperling says, you won't get any overall reduction in your carbon footprint until you've driven your new, more-efficient car 10,000 to 20,000 miles. Another big consideration is how much you drive. Sperling says if you have an older car and you're only driving a few thousand miles a year, it's probably not worth it to upgrade to a cleaner car.

SPERLING: If, however, it's a car that is being used quite a bit - say, 10,00 miles a year or more - there's definitely a high payoff because now there are cars that get 50 miles per gallon compared to your 25.

YDSTIE: Of course, the best thing to do for the environment, says Sperling, is walk or bike or use mass transportation. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.