Magazine article Mother Jones

Prius Envy

Magazine article Mother Jones

Prius Envy

Article excerpt

PRACTICAL VALUES

When does it make sense to ditch your gas-guzzler for that shiny new hybrid?

THOM DAVIS HAD a seemingly simple goal: to buy a reliable car while shrinking his carbon footprint. A professor of geology and climatology at Bendey University outside Boston, Davis was looking to replace his beloved 1988 Saab sedan. He found a 1997 model on Craigslist, but it averaged 25 miles per gallon-better than the national average of 22 mpg, but not close to the 30 mpg that the typical new car gets. So he considered splurging on a brand-new, $24,000, 46-mpg Toyota Prius.

Being a science and numbers guy, Davis decided to calculate whether putting a new hybrid on the road really was the greener choice. You might guess the punch line. "My research overwhelmingly indicated that the used Saab would have an overall lower carbon footprint," he reports. Here's why: Davis assumed that he would own his next car for five years and drive it 48,000 miles. Clearly, the Prius won the mileage batde hands down. But once he figured in the energy used to manufacture the hybrid, he found that the '97 Saab required less energy overall- about 14 million BTU less, enough to power a fridge for nine years. And less energy, of course, means less carbon.

But wait- it's not as simple as used car good, new Prius bad. Davis' answer would have been different if, say, he planned to keep his next car for 10 years. Or if he planned to drive more. And so on. "It's all a matter of what assumptions you use," says Pablo Päster, the vice president of greenhouse gas management innovations for ClimateCheck, whose data Davis used in his calculations.

Another tricky question is who bears the CO2 burden of building the car in the first place. "Is the first owner of a new vehicle fully responsible for emissions for manufacturing that car? Or is the company that manufactured it responsible? …

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