Your Hybrid is a CO2 Polluter And You Should Offset Instead
I recently had an exchange on Twitter that prompted me to convert a series of tweets I have been making into an honest-to-goodness post. It has been awhile.
The crux of the matter is this: if our real motivation in making “greener” car purchases is to reduce our carbon footprint, hybrids do a relatively bad job. You are probably better off simply keeping your “dirty” pure gasoline vehicle, and voluntarily paying a company like Terrapass for carbon offsets. These offsets cost about $5.95 per 1,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, and are pretty well verified. What hybrids are really about is convincing people they are doing more good for the world than they really are. And there is an argument that because the purchase of one removes the psychological incentive to offset CO2 emissions, they may actually be harmful from a global warming perspective.
So what’s the math?
Well, let’s take a Toyota Highlander. The hybrid starts at about $40,000. At that same link you can see that the SE starts at $34,400 and the Limited starts at $37,800. The base hybrid has features other than the hybrid power-train that put it in between those two models. For example, it does not have the smartkey system, three-zone climate control, or 8-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, which the non-hybrid Limited has. So basically, Toyota has set the features/pricing up to make a direct comparison either to the SE or the Limited difficult. That’s probably not an accident. But let’s split the baby and say the hybrid is roughly equivalent to an upgraded SE valued at maybe $37,000. That’s a $3,000 price difference from the hybrid, yo.
Here is what you could buy with that $3,000. First, it costs about $105 per year to offset the 2WD non-hybrid Highlander’s emissions per year, as you can calculate here. So assuming you paid for all of your offsets today, you could offset $3,000/$105 = 25.57 YEARS of CO2 emissions with the amount you are paying extra for the hybrid version. Or you could offset the entire lifespan of your SE/Limited-mix Highlander and the entire lifespan of your family’s second car.
And keep in mind that when you buy the hybrid you are offsetting NO CO2, zero, and, wait for it, you are only getting a bump up from 18/24 city/highway mileage to 28/28. 28 mpg. To offset the hybrid highlander’s CO2 for an equivalent 25.57 years would cost you an additional $2,300 or so.
People. I realize you’re going to save money on gas, too, but at 28 mpg, not much, and if your motivation is to cut CO2 emissions, DON’T BUY A HYBRID. Get an offset.
You can do this math all day. EVs are even worse. Let’s just assume the lithium batteries do not exacerbate environmental problems. The Chevrolet Volt retails for about $39,145. Let’s be generous little devils and just assume you can cut the price to $32,000 using tax subsidies. (So we’re talking about your cost, though keep in mind that everyone else is implicitly paying for the $7,000 extra, to GM, that paragon of virtue, and that this remainder could also be used to pay for CO2 offsets instead, but is not being so-used, by the government.)
For that you get a small car that only seats four people and does not come standard with leather seats. Let’s assume you drive it only in EV mode.
Well, a similar Chevrolet Cruze Eco is actually both longer and taller than a Volt, and seats five because it doesn’t have a massive battery pack in it. The automatic Eco version gets 42 mpg on the highway and retails for $20,875. I’m going to use that price, though I have in front of my face a newspaper advertising a brand new one on sale for $15,999 after a $3,786 dealer discount and $1,000 factory rebate.
So that list price on the Cruze Eco alone is about $11,000 less than the SUBSIDIZED version of the Volt. Assuming you drive 12,000 miles per year, the Cruze Eco costs about $75/year to offset. By getting the Cruze Eco instead of the Volt, you could use the difference in money to offset…ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY SIX YEARS of the Cruze Eco’s CO2 emissions. And keep in mind that after you have bought that Volt, you are doing nothing to offset all of the CO2 emissions from any coal or natural gas power plants that it is drawing juice from.
Similar math applies to all hybrids and EVs.
Now I’m not saying never buy a hybrid. My family owns a Prius, which my wife uses on a very long commute. But we also own a giant 8-person SUV, as to which we pay $110/year to offset all of its CO2 emissions. Is my SUV worse than your Volt for which you pay zero to offset any of your power plant’s CO2 emissions? I don’t think so.
The point of this post is to get people to think differently about the economics of getting rid of CO2. There are a lot of companies out there that do offsets, and there will be more in the future. I think Terrapass is pretty reputable.
Allow me to anticipate some criticisms:
Yes, I get that some people are motivated by reducing dependence on foreign oil and/or not supporting fracking. But buy a hybrid and you are still supporting foreign oil though, and at 28 mpg, in a Highlander Hybrid you are supporting it quite heavily. And in most states in a Volt you are supporting a significant amount of coal power plant emissions, which is not healthy.
Don’t think the Cruze Eco is a good comp for the Volt? Why? Same size. Many similar features and in a Cruze Eco you can actually maybe seat five, which is impossible in a Volt. A standard Volt doesn’t come with leather either. Step away from the Eco and the Cruze LTZ has similar economics and comes with leather and lots of other goodies. The fact is that companies have done a great job of selling hybrids as luxury cars. Thus, people who drive them can still feel like they have some of the prestige of driving a BMW or a Cadillac. Scarlett Johansson and other stars famously started being driven in a Prius and other hybrids to the Oscars around 2005 or so. Which is typical of the marketing and perception of hybrids as high-end.
But the performance is just not remotely comparable overall to a luxury vehicle. And the standard features are just not remotely equivalent either. It’s a bit of a scam, friends. It is green-washing. Buy a hybrid and people will think you are a good person and give you business, have sex with you, seat you at a better table, etc., etc. Though it’s better than a non-offset, non-hybrid to be sure. They’ll think you’re actually rich and COULD buy a BMW 7-series, but you just choose to be virtuous person. People won’t think that if you drive a Chevy Cruze Eco and pay $80/year to offset, bub! So accordingly people drive the hybrid. It’s perception.
I also get that you are saving money on gas by buying the hybrid. But do you know what? Not MUCH more than by buying a Cruze Eco getting 42 mpg on the highway. Not MUCH more if you are still (maybe) getting 28 mpg in a Highlander Hybrid. And again, the point is that if we really care about the environment and global warming, the appropriate question is not what your gas costs are (though you can also incorporate that into the total economics), it is what is your remaining carbon footprint?