Keeping smaller cars longer has financial benefits

I have never owned a truck or SUV. Our family also keep our cars longer than average. When we parted with our fuel-efficient 1993 Ford Escort station wagon some years ago, it was over a decade old and had traveled well over 100,000 miles.

There has been a financial incentive for both our choice to buy smaller vehicles and our habit of keeping them longer. Our purchase and fuel costs are both significantly lower. But these practices have notable environmental benefits, too. Beyond the obvious energy savings and greenhouse gas and pollution emission reductions because we use less gasoline, we reduce the environmental footprint of making a new car every few years.

The manufacturing of a new car makes an energy and environmental impact that is about the same size as its operational footprint. (The fascinating and humorous book, How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee explains this and many other products we commonly consume.)

While cars are scrapped at the end of their useful life, much still ends up as waste. The manufacturing process also uses a considerable amount of non-recyclable plastic and non-renewable energy as well. It would follow that bigger vehicles produce a bigger, more damaging footprint.

Not only do they use many times the amount of fuel to drive, the largest SUVs produce five times the greenhouse gas emissions of ultra-compact cars. So no matter the size of the car, making it last longer has an additional environmental benefit.

I don’t mean to imply that truck and SUV owners are evil planet plunderers. There are many rational reasons some folks need a larger vehicle, bigger families or work needs being the most notable. And there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in a nice car. But as I have noted before, we too often buy our vehicles for the uncommon tasks that occur only a small handful of times each year or we completely ignore fuel efficiency.

The American auto industry has made this problem worse. Bigger cars and trucks cost more and generate bigger profits. In the days of cheap gasoline, nobody particularly cared what kind of gas mileage their car got.

Just about the time that the average mileage dipped below 13 mpg, the 1973 Arab oil embargo presented us with a dose of reality, prompting Congress to pass the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Part of the new law was the establishment of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Though “your mileage may vary,” the standards also gave rise to the mileage estimates found on all new cars.

Interest in the mileage estimates waxes and wanes as gas prices fluctuate, but environmentally aware folks seem to pay attention no matter what. Concerns over climate change seemed to renew interest in fuel efficiency in recent years, but several other benefits (including saving money) made it clear that higher standards were in everyone’s best interests. In the last decade, the standards have helped average mileage went from 20 to 25 miles per gallon.

Eager to sell more SUVs and crossovers, the auto industry lobbied to freeze CAFE standards, endangering continued progress on one of the nation’s most sensible and effective environmental standards.

John Frederick (www.johnj writes on environmental issues every other Wednesday.