What's the Best Kind of Car for the Climate?
By Sara Peach
I live in a city that does not have great transportation options, and I live far enough from my work that I am not able to walk or ride a bike. I have a 15-year-old car that I am looking to replace.
My husband and I are open to buying a hybrid or electric car. We live in Michigan, and the gentleman at the dealership told us that in our climate, we would not get maximum efficiency out of a hybrid due to cold temperatures in the winter. Additionally, I understand that hybrid and electric cars have less of a footprint on the road, but require greater resources to create, thus negating the benefit. Is that true? – Christina in Michigan
One of the claims you've heard is true – but it's not the whole picture. And the other is false. As I'll explain, Michigan is an imperfect place to drive hybrid or electric vehicles. But overall, their benefits to the climate outweigh the drawbacks, so these vehicles can make solid choices even in your cold Midwestern state.
Why Hybrids Can Be Better for the Climate
Most cars and trucks run by burning diesel or gasoline in internal combustion engines. They contribute to climate change by releasing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from their tailpipes.
Hybrid vehicles, by contrast, contain both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. The electric motor assists the gasoline engine and in some cases propels the car on its own, boosting the vehicle's efficiency. Hybrids also take advantage of several fuel-saving features, such as powering off automatically at stoplights to prevent idling. As a result, they typically boast better fuel economy – and therefore a smaller climate impact – than vehicles running on conventional engines alone.
But be sure to compare mileage ratings: A hybrid SUV may get fewer miles to the gallon than a compact car running on a conventional engine alone.
The Climate Benefits of Electric Cars
Fueling and driving an electric vehicle generally produces far less carbon dioxide than a car with a conventional engine. That's because across much of the U.S., generating the electricity to charge the car produces less heat-trapping pollution than burning gasoline or diesel.
That said, the mix of fuels powering the electricity grid makes a big difference to the climate impact. For example, California generates less than half of its electricity from fossil fuels. As a result, the average electric car charged in the Golden State is responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide as a gasoline car getting 109 miles per gallon, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis. In Michigan's Lower Peninsula – where a larger share of electricity is generated from fossil fuels – an average electric car pollutes as much as a gasoline car getting 49 mpg. That's worse for the climate than an electric car fueled in California, but still better than the average new car with an internal combustion engine.
In fact, most U.S. residents now live in a place where electric cars get at least the equivalent of 46 mpg, and often much higher. You can see the mileage estimate for your region here.
When it comes to climate change, an electric car holds another advantage over vehicles with conventional engines: the opportunity to improve if and when the grid reduces its reliance on fossil fuels.
"If you buy a gasoline car, you know, the efficiency is set," said David Reichmuth, an engineer who studies vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If anything, it gets a little less efficient, you know, as the car gets older – whereas the electric car could effectively become cleaner over time, not because it becomes more efficient, but because the electricity going into it will become cleaner over time."
How Does Cold Weather Affect Vehicle Efficiency?
Your dealer was correct to say that cold weather reduces the efficiency of hybrid vehicles. But that's not the whole picture. In fact, cold weather causes efficiency to decline in all three kinds of vehicles – hybrid, electric and internal combustion engine. In icy temperatures, vehicle batteries and engines simply don't perform as well as they do in warmer weather, among other factors that drag down efficiency.
According to FuelEconomy.gov, a gasoline car's mileage is 12 to 22% lower at 20 degrees Fahrenheit than at 77 degrees. For hybrids, fuel economy falls by 31 to 34% in cold weather.
But that need not deter you from purchasing a hybrid vehicle – provided you choose one with a high mileage rating. Top-performing hybrids, such as the 2019 Hyundai Ioniq hybrid (58 mpg) and the 2019 Toyota Prius (56 mpg), will likely contribute less to climate change than vehicles with conventional engines, even accounting for cold-weather efficiency declines.
As for electric vehicles, a 2015 paper by Carnegie Mellon researchers found that the range of the Nissan Leaf can drop by as much as 36% in cold climates. Test drives of several electric vehicle models by AAA and Consumer Reports have also found substantial range losses in cold temperatures. So don't miss these tips from Consumer Reports, which advises those living in cold climates to purchase a car with twice the range they expect to use.
But despite Michigan's cold climate, the Carnegie Mellon researchers found that an electric vehicle will still likely pollute less than one with a conventional engine. Taking into account the carbon impact of the regional electricity grid and the diminished performance of electric vehicles in a cold climate, the researchers calculated that a Nissan Leaf driven in Michigan's Lower Peninsula is responsible for roughly 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile driven. That's about half as much as the average new vehicle, according to this greenhouse gas emissions calculator from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
How Manufacturing Affects the Climate Impact of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles
Christina, you've heard that hybrid and electric vehicles consume more resources to manufacture than vehicles with internal combustion engines. It's true that producing hybrid and electric vehicles requires more energy – and associated greenhouse gases – than those with only internal combustion engines. Manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles, in particular, consumes a lot of energy.
However, that does not negate the climate benefits of the vehicles. Calculating the lifetime impact of the vehicles is complex, but various studies suggest that after they hit the road, hybrid and electric vehicles more than make up for their energy-intensive beginnings.
Reichmuth of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an author of one such analysis, said that excess emissions from manufacturing electric vehicles are offset quickly: "As long as the car's driving for more than a couple years, there'd be a net emissions benefit," he said.
The bottom line: Either a hybrid or electric vehicle is likely a better choice for the climate than a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, even in chilly Michigan. But nothing beats avoiding unneeded car trips in the first place, so don't neglect to let your leaders know your thoughts on improving local options for walking, biking and public transit.
Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
Sara Peach is the senior editor of Yale Climate Connections.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Yale Climate Connections.
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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