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Science & Environment

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

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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.