Painfully, one of the very very few action items from Al Core's An Inconvenient Truth was to replace your old appliances. You know, I nearly bought into that line when gas was cheap and you could finance your new land yachts at very low rates. Oxymoronically, all the folk buying gas guzzlers still put many cars that were spewing insanely dirty exhaust off the road. Expeditions and Hummers were making our air clean!
Perhaps, but what happened to the '80 Suburbans you were replacing?
Here are a couple of studies of the impact of cars that measured the impact of manufacturing vehicles and for running them during some arbitrary lifetime that could approximate representative. Both are from the apparently now defunct (at least the website is) Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment. I don't know them from Adam.
Coal-based electricity leads to CO2 emissions nearly as high as for a gasoline-powered car! Yet hydropower results in dramatically lower CO2 emissions. If you want to make an impact on CO2 emissions with your next car purchase, you need to know how the electricity in your region is generated before making your choice.
Well, hydro is better -- unless you're on a grid and the hyrdo power you use means someone further down the grid has to be covered by coal, but in spirit they're on the right track.
The real problem with each of these studies' measures of impact is that they neglect the issue of replacing, no, make that disposing of the old car. That is, they measure the impact on the environment from a new car's construction and the time it's driven, but not when it (or the car at the end of the used car chain it created) is dumped in the scrap yard. How much is it worth not to throw a car away? To not throw away millions of cars?
Each also ignores the opportunity cost of purchasing a new vehicle. Sure, if the only cost was CO2, we'd be in business replacing old cars, perhaps. But the other cost is people getting stuck with $300 a month car payments that they don't need to be paying. Where else could that money be going, even ignoring for now finance charges and concentrating on the price of the car? Granted, for far too many it's going to new TVs and the like, but perhaps some of that could be diverted to reducing individuals' impact on their surroundings in other ways? I don't know how exactly, but maybe by buying local products that carry a small premium because of some hypothetical loss of economy of scale? You get the point. With more disposable income, one has more power to make buying decisions.
I'm a black pot. I admit it. Though it barely gets driven, I'd take my Jeep CJ-7 everywhere if I could. But if doing so saved me $15,000 every five years plus (the environmental impact price of manufacturing a new car every five years minus the extra pollution my beast would spew over and above the new wheels), am I in a better or worse position to shape my influence on the environment? And much of the money I spend on maintenance for the old car stays, I assure you, much closer to home than it would be if that money bought a new car. Ask the poor saps who fleece this poor sap when I can't figure out what's wrong with my Jeep.
Look, I don't know what's the smart move. But I will say the facts for making an informed choice on whether buying new cars is a particularly smart idea in the grand scheme aren't easily available. As things stand, the only people I am confident benefit from the perception held by upper middle class folk that new cars are better for the environment are car manufacturers. Strange how the people with money to buy new cars that are swayed by arguments about the environment are exactly the folk spouting off that new cars are more environmentally friendly. (Cue Mr. Barnum now on suckers.) The belief fits in nicely with middle class spending habits as described in The Atlantic's piece called Inconspicuous Consumption, A new theory of the leisure class, which is a fascinating read, if you get a chance.
Thanks, Mr. Gore. Seriously, you got a Nobel prize for pimping GM and making spending cool[er]? I often despise him, but where's Michael Moore when I need him?