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Really Inconvenient Truths November 7, 2007

Posted by federalist in Energy.

My pregnant wife was outside electioneering.  During quiet periods she got in her coupe and ran the engine to warm up.  A liberal electioneer saw her doing that and chastised her for burning fuel to stay warm: “Do you realize how much harm you’re doing to the environment?  Look at your carbon footprint!”  Amusingly, this electioneer later drove off in a Mercedes S-Class sedan.

Well, what is the “carbon footprint” of a luxury car, and how does it compare to a regular car?  I suspect that if we consider the carbon dioxide emitted by all of the gasoline that will be burned in our coupe over its entire life, it will not exceed the carbon footprint of a new S-Class just being driven off the lot.

Many shrill environmentalists have a childish perception of the world’s energy cycle: They seem unable to think beyond the immediate combustion of fossil fuels.  The inconvenient truth they should know is that they can’t buy their way out of responsibility for energy use.

Suppose the life of my car is 120,000 miles.  At a conservative 20mpg we are burning 6000 gallons, which at $3/gallon is $18,000 of pure “carbon.”  (I.e., let us suppose that producing and burning fossil fuels is the most direct way to turn dollars into carbon emissions.)  But in a world running on fossil fuels almost all market activity can ultimately be traced to some marginal emission of carbon.  In the present example we could almost discount the fuel (although the environmentalist’s car is significantly less fuel-efficient than mine).  Instead let us focus on the fact that the environmentalist’s car cost at least $60,000 more than mine, and let us imagine what the carbon footprint of that premium might be.

  1. Of course, part of the price of a luxury car is a luxury premium.  It goes to maintain a luxury dealer and customer support infrastructure — larger showrooms, more salesmen, more staff.  All of which burn more energy.
  2. That luxury premium is also preserved through extensive advertising and branding campaigns.  Part of this ends up in the print media, which also burns energy.  I.e., if Mercedes weren’t pumping all of that money into advertising some publications would not be printed, and some would be smaller and lighter.
  3. There are knock-on effects to all expenditures that employ more people, since on average more people with more money end up consuming more energy.
  4. Expensive cars are designed with more resources.  More man-hours are spent in design and production of each car. More expensive materials are used — e.g., aluminum instead of steel — and that expense typically implies more “carbon” in its production tail.
  5. Note that even “environmentally-friendly” hybrid cars may be net-emitters when you take into account their entire carbon tail.  For example, once you take away government and manufacturer incentives (which hide but don’t reduce the production costs) a Toyota Prius costs at least $7,000 more than a comparable conventional car.  This premium would take over 18 years to pay off in fuel savings, which is longer than the life expectancy of the car.

I have previously challenged the numerous dubious assumptions of “global warmists,” but even if we accept their alarmist hypotheses their hypocrisy can be astonishing.



1. federalist - May 28, 2008

Via MarginalRevolution:

Which do you think takes a bigger toll on the environment, owning a dog, or owning an SUV? My bet would be on the dog.

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