Green Guru: Emissions from Building Hybrid Cars

Ever wonder if the emissions from producing a hybrid car are massive? If so, you're not the only one. Check out our reader's question and the Green Guru's answer.

I’ve heard that building hybrid cars produces a lot of carbon emissions, outweighing the use of less fuel. Is this true?
—Taylor Callicrate, Columbia, MD

Most of any car’s lifetime emissions come after it leaves the dealership, not during manufacturing.

Only 13 percent to 28 percent of total lifecycle emissions occur during production, whether the vehicle is a conventional car or a hybrid, Constantine Samaras and colleagues at the nonprofit RAND Corporation found. “While batteries are energy-intensive, they still comprise just a small amount of the greenhouse-gas footprint from [hybrid] vehicles,” he says.

For every gallon of gas your car burns, 25 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted, says Jim Kliesch, a Union of Concerned Scientists senior engineer. The Toyota Prius Plugin, for instance, gets up to 60 highway miles per gallon compared with the U.S. fleet average of 21.1 mpg, producing 60 percent fewer emissions over its lifetime. [Get your car’s mileage here.]

The finding contradicts a since-debunked 2007 report concluding that the Hummer is less energy-intensive than the Toyota Prius when manufacturing is considered. Samaras calculated that the Prius battery would have to weigh more than 10 tons for the Hummer, which gets about 16 miles per gallon, to create fewer emissions.

Even a fuel-efficient conventional car would have to get at least 60 miles per gallon in order to match a plug-in electric hybrid’s greenhouse-gas emissions. So if you’re debating which kind of car to buy, hit the highway in a hybrid.

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