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This tool shows exactly which cars screw the climate

Turns out, most of them.

chevy suburban
The Chevy Suburban, the most climate-hostile vehicle available on the US market.

Climate targets can seem distant and abstract. Two degrees. Eighty percent by 2050. What do they mean for us, for choices we make today?

Help has arrived, at least for cars, in the form of a nifty new interactive tool created by researchers at MIT. It places consumer automotive choices in the context of long-term climate targets.

More simply: It tells you the climate impact of your car.

It’s based on new research just published in Environmental Science & Technology, which quantifies both the carbon intensity (carbon emissions per mile) and the costs (vehicle, fuel, and maintenance costs per mile) of 125 light-duty vehicle models currently on the market in the US.

You can plug in any model (along with your location — the carbon intensity of the electricity supply varies from region to region) and find out how clean and/or cheap your car is. You can also see whether its emissions are commensurate with 2030, 2040, or 2050 climate targets.

If you want to get extra-nerdy, you can tweak almost any of the variables, including fuel costs, electricity costs, how often plug-in hybrids actually get plugged in, what emissions from various sources are, etc. You can even change the color scheme.

I’ll embed it at the bottom of this post, but it’s a little finicky, so you’ll probably have to go over to Carbon Counter to really play with it.

cars, costs and lifecycle ghgs (EST)

A few big-picture results from the study:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, cleaner cars are not more expensive — in fact, some of the most climate-friendly cars are the least expensive, once full lifecycle costs are taken into account. (Hybrid and battery electric vehicles, or BEVs, tend to have lower fuel and maintenance costs, which make up for their higher upfront costs.)
  • The transportation sector isn’t even close to being in line with long-term climate targets. On average, cars sold in 2014 had 50 percent higher emissions than would be consonant with 2030 climate targets.
  • No internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle had emissions consonant with 2030 targets. (This gets at something I mentioned the other day: To hit the 2 degree target, researchers estimate that the very last ICE vehicle will have to be sold in 2035.)
  • In slightly better news, most hybrid and plug-in hybrid models, and all battery electric vehicles, have emissions commensurate with 2030 targets.
  • The most sobering result of all: No currently available vehicle — not a one — is aligned with 2040 or 2050 targets. That’s because even BEVs rely on the electricity grid, and the electricity grid still generates too many emissions to hit those targets. (The exception: If you live off-grid and generate all your own power with solar panels, your BEV can be fully innocent of all crimes against climate.)

Upshot: The only automotive system commensurate with our long-term climate targets is one composed entirely of BEVs connected to an entirely carbon-free grid.

Here’s the tool. It may not look great on phones or tablets: