Published on February 24th, 2015 | by Piers Ede

Lomborg Strikes Again: Why keeping your old car on the road may be your greenest decision this year

carexhaustThe ever controversial Bjorn Lomborg hit the news again this month with an article in USA Today which questioned our current worship of the green car. Lomborg, author of The Sceptical Environmentalist, asserted that the ecological credentials of electric vehicles are almost entirely spurious, citing the coal fired power stations which fuel their construction as the reason none of these vehicles can be realistically called ‘zero emission.’ He goes on to say:

If we had 25 million extra electric cars rather than gasoline cars on the road in 2020, they would over their lifetime avoid 75 million tons of CO2 at a market value of more than half a billion dollars. However, at present-day subsidies, they would cost a phenomenal $188 billion while creating more pollution than gasoline cars, costing about $35 billion in lives cut short by poor air quality. For every dollar of cost, the electric car does less than half a cent of good.

Lomborg raises some interesting points in the article but what he doesn’t question is whether buying new cars in general outweighs the benefits of keeping older ones on the road. The Telegraph, however, makes an impressive attempt to answer this question in its article New or old – which is greener? Citing Mike Berners-Lee, one of Britain’s leading thinkers on sustainability and global warming, journalist Alex Robbins calculates:

That a rough guide to the carbon footprint of a car is 720kg for every £1,000 you spend on it. So let’s take the example of a typical family car, a Volkswagen Golf. With emissions of 123g/km, running a brand-new 1.4 TSI S 5-door for 40,000 miles – or about five years’ use for the average private car driver – would produce a total of just over 7.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide. But with a list price of £19,400, producing the car will incur around 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, making a total of 22 tonnes, according to Berners-Lee’s theory.

Using the same calculations for a ten year old Golf, or a new model specifically designed to be environmentally friendly, Robbins finds in each case you’d have to be driving an incredibly unreliable car for it to incur a similar amount of carbon dioxide in repairs to the production of a brand-new car.

While this supposition seems to make total sense it does so at the expense of one of our economies most entrenched notions: that technological advancement should be automatically supported. At the heart of most economic theory lies the supposition that growth is good and indeed, in societies with rapidly expanding populations we need to keeping upping the ante to keep unemployment within stable parameters and to keep everyone clothed and fed. But it’s just because of our increasing scarcity of resources that we need to start questioning the parameters on which our societies are run. And part of that is resisting what has become an immensely sucessful piece of greenwashing by the automotive industry, assuring us that the electric vehicle industry is clean, green and free from carbon footprint.

What is certain, says David Ward, CEO of classic parts company Volkswagen Heritage, is that the public are not nearly as informed as they think about the true cost to the planet of buying a new car, no matter what it’s environmental credentials. I run a business where we’ve always valued keeping old cars in good condition, running as efficiently as possible, and in which we appreciate the value of good craftsmanship that lasts. It’s pleasing to find that this old fashioned sensibility is now finding its place as a green credential in its own right. If you take into account mineral mining, battery production, and electricity sources, old cars continue to be a surprisingly ethical choice for car enthusiasts. 

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