Your car had a CO2 footprint before you even thought of buying it. Here’s why.


How many cow farts on a Kia? What’s the average carbon emission of apassenger seat? How many miles per polar bear?

Carbon footprint

These all seem like questions posed by the Mad Hatter, but in fact they’re somewhat relevant: they give us a glimpse into the world of carbon calculation. You see, your car has a carbon footprint before you even think of buying it.

In this post, we’re going to look at the carbon footprint of your ride, before you get the key. And of course, we’ll give you tips on how to cut your emissions.


The carbon footprint of your car, broken down — the early stage

Although we seldom think about it, our cars had lives before we met them. A car doesn’t magically appear out of nowhere as soon as you set foot in the dealer, as if being conjured into existence on a cloud of unicorn sneezes.

Car manufacturing is a big business, with 2017 sales of more than 97 million vehicles worldwide. Not only is it big, it’s dirty. In fact, a 2010 report from the United Nations Environmental Program ranked car manufacturing as the number one polluter in the world, surpassing steel production, and livestock farming

Let’s look at the early stage of a car’s lifecycle: production.


Production — The birth of the car.

The average car has 30,000 components. Each one comes with its own story, its own manufacturing process, and its own resource extraction and transportation. Like an endless fractal, the supply chain seems to spiral on forever, until eventually coming back to a mine or plantation. Mapping out all the single steps along the way is impossible, and therefore, assessing the impact of your car isn’t going to be 100% accurate.

TrafficAnd on top of that, there is all the energy used to assemble your car, or ship it to a sales associate near you.

We can, however, use input–output analysis. Doing so suggests that the energy needed for assembling the car accounts for 11% of the total energy required to build it, metal extraction is around 33%, and rubber manufacturing around 3%. Remember, this is only the assembly phase.


Note that these numbers are based on the 2010 book, How Bad are Bananas, by Mike Berners-Lee, and might be a bit outdated.


A few reports have tried to map out how much of your car’s environmental footprint originates from the production phase. A 2004 analysis by Toyota found that almost 28% of Green House Gasses. GHG, generated during the lifecycle of a typical gasoline-powered car is related to its manufacturing and pre-ownership transportation.

Luckily, the focus on energy consumption and carbon emissions have done a lot for lowering the C02 emissions from the manufacturing stage. Between 2008 and 2018, the total CO2 emissions from car production fell by nearly 24%.

So what does this mean for you?


Your carbon relationship with your car — It’s complicated

We had our research team spend a lot of time on this article so we could give you a straight answer about what your car’s environmental footprint is before you buy it. But the truth is, that information isn’t available. There are so many factors to take into account, and the data is either outdated or insufficient.

However, you don’t need to know all the details.

If you are looking to buy a new car, there’s one thing you should note before you worry about the pre-purchase footprint.

If you already have a functioning car, keep it.

Because such a large part of a car’s environmental footprint is in the production phase, it is better for the environment if you keep the old gal running.


How to keep it going

Log your driving and see if there are any regular usages that you can cut down on. Most people find that they can combine errands, which means making fewer trips.

Take care of your car. A well maintained car pollutes less, and lasts longer. And yes, repairs can be SO expensive, so you tend to put them off. But that’s only going to cost you money in the long run. Remember, there are ways to repair your car, without going broke.

Keep your car running

Here are some additional tips for reducing the environmental impact of your car:

  • Avoid having a roof-top cargo box, as it add a lot of weight;
  • And speaking of, ditch unnecessary weight from your car — you’d be surprised at what just ends up living permanently in your trunk;
  • Offset your car usages;
  • Change your driving style to a less intensive one (don’t speed or try to accelerate at the speed of light);
  • Make sure your tires are on fleek and properly inflated (this also gives you better traction);
  • Use the right motor oil for your car;
  • Use cruise control when you can.


Last resort — the new car

If you finally come to the point where a new car is needed, don’t fret.

Because you already know that a large part of a car’s carbon emissions comes from its production, you can consider opting for a used car, which is also better for your wallet.


If you find that a used car isn’t for you, but you still want to make the least harmful purchase you can, this carbon counter app from MIT helps you get an overview of both price and environmental impact (you can find a nice summary about the app here).

Which car should you get

Want to learn more about the history of the car, and what the U.S. would look like without them? Read about a coast without cars.