It has been a common belief that low-emissions vehicles, like hybrids and electric cars, are more expensive than other choices. But a new study finds that when operating and maintenance costs are included in a vehicle's price, cleaner cars may actually be a better bet.
The cars and trucks we drive are responsible for about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in this country. That's why Jessika Trancik, an energy scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided it was time to take a closer look at vehicle emissions.
"The question that we started with was, 'How do cars, how do personal vehicles, compare to climate targets?' " Trancik says.
She and her colleagues wanted to know which of the 125 most popular cars in the U.S. are both cost-efficient and climate-friendly.
"You don't actually have to pay more for those lowest-emitting vehicles," says Trancik.
And they found that some cars on the market — most hybrid and battery electric cars — already meet the global emissions goals the U.S. recently agreed to meet by the year 2030. This group includes cars like the Ford Focus Electric, Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius, Tesla Model 3 and BMW i3.
It's a sliver of good news, which is rare when talking about climate change.
But, says Trancik, "The average car sold is about 50 percent above the 2030 target. So, there certainly is a disconnect between the kind of cars people are buying and where we need to get by 2030."
The Chevrolet Suburban, for example, falls on the other end of the chart — with high lifetime costs and greenhouse gas emissions well above the American average.
And there's a bigger gap in terms of the goals set for 2050, says Chris Gearhart, who directs transportation research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
"I come to work every day because I think that getting greenhouse gas emissions out of the transportation sector is one of the most important things that we can work on," Gearhart says.
He says Trancik's work is exciting because it clearly shows how individual choices can make an impact.
"And you don't have to have a bank account that can afford a Tesla," he says.
But, he says, there's still a lot of work to do.
Right now, U.S. cars emit enough greenhouse gases per year to fill more than 700,000 Empire State Buildings. To meet 2050 goals, we'd have to reduce that volume to about 150,000 Empire State Buildings.
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Here's some news on the cost of fighting pollution. It's cheaper than it seems. It is commonly assumed that it costs more to run a hybrid or electric car than it does a traditional car. But a study out this week found that cleaner cars save money when you include the operating and maintenance costs. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Cars and trucks spit out a fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions in this country. That's why energy scientist Jessika Trancik decided it was time to take a closer look at them.
JESSIKA TRANCIK: The question that we started with was, how do cars - how do personal vehicles compare to climate targets?
BICHELL: Trancik is with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She and her colleagues compared the cost of the 125 most popular cars in the U.S. to the amount of greenhouse gases they release. What they found might surprise people.
TRANCIK: You don't actually have to pay more for those lowest emitting vehicles.
BICHELL: If you include all the money it takes to fuel and maintain a car over its lifetime, they found that cleaner cars can actually save more money, and that's even without government subsidies. The information is public on a webpage called carboncounter.com. The MIT researchers also published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Some cars, like the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius, already meet global climate goals set for 2030. But most Americans are still buying fossil fuel-guzzling cars.
TRANCIK: So there certainly is a disconnect between the kinds of cars people are buying and where we need to get to by 2030.
BICHELL: Not to mention where we need to get by 2050. That goal is to shave emissions down by 80 percent of what they were in 1990. Chris Gearhart directs transportation research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
CHRIS GEARHART: I come to work every day because I think that getting greenhouse gas emissions out of the transportation sector is among the most important things that we can work on.
BICHELL: He says the MIT study is exciting because it shows how individual choices can make an impact.
GEARHART: You don't have to have a bank account that can afford a Tesla.
BICHELL: But, he says, there's still a lot of work to do. To meet mid-century climate goals, Gearhart says, most Americans will need to transition to zero-emission cars.
Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.