Not an Eco-Warrior? You can still cut your driving emissions.

So, how do you respond when someone tells you it’s about time you reduced your car’s carbon footprint?

  • Roll your eyes, stick your ear buds in and wait for them to go away?
  • Go off on a rant about Chinese power stations?
  • Tell them you’ll start when they stop buying a new iPhone every year?

We understand. Let’s be honest, as keen drivers and proud car owners, we just don’t want to hear it. It’s a tough adjustment, given that many of us grew up hooning along B roads, wasting as much fossil fuel as possible. It’s tempting to either let it all wash over you, or go on the attack — by calling out hypocrisy, or pointing out how much worse everyone else is than you.

Yet 99% of the public now accept the reality of climate change, and concerns about the environment are now at record levels in the UK. Climate scientists are pretty certain that the extreme weather we’re seeing now is only the tip of the melting iceberg, unless we act fast. It’s going to take a concerted effort by governments, businesses, scientists — and yes, Joe Public — to avoid the very worst climate scenarios.

And so to the big question: without going full-on eco-warrior, can you make any meaningful reductions to your driving carbon footprint?

It’s a definite yes — and in this and the next post, we’ll look sensibly at your options.

1. EV or not EV?

First, let’s deal with the electric elephant in the room. Once the preserve of mung bean-eating Californians, EVs are now the inevitable future of mainstream motoring. It’s also inescapable that the most obvious way to cut your driving emissions at a stroke is to go full plug-in electric.

Yes, EVs still have massive environmental costs. Yes, they are not the one silver bullet that’s going to solve climate change.

But despite what Dave down the pub is still saying, EVs are massively cleaner over their life cycle than internal combustion vehicles, even when they’re using electricity from dirty sources (which they aren’t in the UK).

However, that doesn’t mean an EV, right now, is your best option. This could easily be an article in itself, but briefly, the decision to go electric involves weighing up quite a few factors. On the positive side to EV ownership, there are:

  • vastly reduced running costs
  • reduced servicing and maintenance
  • a smooth, quiet driving experience
  • great performance options (if you have the money)
  • some very cool, high-tech cars.

But against this, you have to balance:

  • high initial outlay
  • range issues on longer runs
  • a charging infrastructure that’s playing catch-up
  • the likelhood that your new model will be superceded in a few months by something better.

None of these shortcomings seems to be holding back EV uptake, which in one year has tripled to 9.1% of all new car sales in the UK.

Still, if you’re not ready to give up on dinosaur-juice just yet, is a hybrid a sensible emissions-reducing compromise?

2. The hybrid quandary

On the face of things, a plug-in hybrid seems a great way to lower your emissions without breaking the bank or sacrificing any range on longer trips. And indeed, in certain circumstances, they can be just that.

Let’s say that you regularly charge your battery, do most of your driving on the school or shopping run, drive sedately, and avoid lots of cold starts. In this case, you’re likely to get some really economical driving and therefore very low emissions. You might even approach the impressive 44g/km of CO2 that’s touted by the motor industry for hybrid vehicles.

Unfortunately, though, you probably won’t, because that’s not how most hybrid cars are driven in the real world. Research by Transport and Environment, working with Greenpeace, suggests that emissions from hybrids are typically up to 2.5 times higher in real-world usage than those claimed in the glossy ads. As the BBC helpfully summarises:

Transport and Environment’s analysis says a key problem with plug-in hybrids is that so many owners rarely actually charge their cars, meaning they rely on the petrol or diesel engine.

Another is that many plug-in hybrid models include design features that automatically turn on the petrol/diesel engine at start-up on a cold day, or will kick in that engine if driver accelerates hard.

In addition, if your hybrid is mainly used as a motorway-muncher, most of your mileage won’t be powered with electrons, which means you’ll be lugging around those super-heavy batteries for no good reason.

Environmental organisations view hybrids as a weak sauce solution, and an attempt by the auto industries to resist real change. That’s a debate for another time, but what we can safely say is that plug-in hybrids are unlikely to do much for your bank balance or emissions unless they’re used as the manufacturers envisaged.

3. Bucking the SUV trend

Ah, the SUV. The flexibility. The space. The commanding driving position, which makes you feel master of all you survey.

From India to the USA, and of course in good old Blighty, the SUV continues its relentless rise, crushing other car body shapes under its ample wheelbase.

And the cost in emissions is staggering. According to an analysis by the International Energy Agency:

SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global COemissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation.

Or, as The Guardian puts it: “If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.”

The reasons for this are simple: all that comfort and space mean that SUVs are lardy and have the aerodynamics of a brick. They are part of an overall trend in personal transport getting bigger and heavier, something that’s happened so gradually, we’ve stopped seeing it — until you spot a 1970s hatchback and wonder why it looks like a clown’s car. It all adds up to terrible fuel economy compared to smaller equivalents, and therefore higher emissions.

SUVs have many advantages, but with petrol and diesel prices zooming ever upwards — along with emissions — it might be worth considering if you really need something so huge to get around in.

But I’m not changing my car any time soon…

So far, we’ve looked at different buying options, which is fine if you’re looking to change your car sometime soon. However, even if you’re not, there are still some common sense ways to reduce your transport emissions without moving to a cave and living on berries. And that’s what we’ll be looking at next time.

The Welsh VW Specialist blog covers a wide range of automotive topics, from the contentious to the light-hearted. We are an independent garage specialising (as the name suggests!) in the VW group marques, including Audi, Volkswagen, Skoda and SEAT. Welsh VW Specialists provide services, repairs and MOTs, delivering a main dealer level of care at affordable prices. To book your vehicle in, or for any enquiries, get in touch.