Study ranking new cars for overall 'environmental damage' yields surprising findings

Illustration: Caitlin Murray/Yahoo News, Natalie Cruz/Yahoo News
Illustration: Caitlin Murray/Yahoo News, Natalie Cruz/Yahoo News

It was the fall of 2021, and Lois Kraus was feeling hypocritical. The Westfield, N.J., resident and environmental activist was still driving gasoline-powered cars, including to her job at Sustainable Haus, an eco-friendly home-goods shop in nearby Summit.

“I was feeling [insincere] leading a team and not having an electric car,” Kraus, the co-chair of the Westfield Green Team, a committee that advises the town’s mayor, recently told Yahoo News. “I felt like I was not walking the talk.”

So Kraus and her husband started looking for an electric car to replace their Infiniti, eventually settling on a Ford Mustang Mach-E. Although it cost around $50,000, they will receive a $7,500 federal income tax credit and a state tax credit for buying their vehicle charger.

“When you factor in high gas prices and not having to get oil changes, the return on investment wasn’t that long,” Kraus said. “It was only a few years.”

A 2023 Cooper SE
A 2023 Cooper SE hardtop. (David Zalubowski/AP)

But while it might save money in the long run, Kraus’s decision to go electric was motivated by her concern about the toll climate change is taking on the planet.

“Because I’m sitting outside on March 7 and all my daffodils are blooming, and it’s ridiculous,” Kraus said when asked why she wanted an electric car. The East Coast’s mild winter, a manifestation of climate change, has led to the unusually early blooming of many flowers. In January, temperatures were 5.1°F above average across the contiguous U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and 2.1°F warmer in February.

“It’s horrifying what’s happening,” she added. “You just have to look at any natural disaster and you’re just like, ‘what the f*** are we doing?’”

For drivers like Kraus, a new ranking of the environmental impact of virtually every 2023 passenger vehicle model available on the U.S. market should come in handy. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit research organization, has calculated the “environmental damage” caused by each of more than 1,200 models and made a “Greenest List” of the 12 with the smallest overall environmental footprint. While electric vehicles perform the best, including the five greenest models, the rankings also demonstrate the importance of size: Lifecycle pollution from some smaller hybrids can actually be lower than it is for many larger fully electric trucks and SUVs.

An electric vehicle charging station
An electric vehicle charging station in Monterey Park, Calif. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The group defines “environmental damage” as a combination of carbon emissions and the air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide emitted over the automobile’s entire lifespan. That includes what comes out of the tailpipe on a conventional model and the emissions and pollution that come from producing the electricity used by an electric vehicle, but also the carbon and air pollution that results from the construction of the car.

“We’re looking beyond fuel efficiency, because it's a major part — but not the only part — of the impact,” Peter Huether, senior research analyst for transportation at ACEEE, told Yahoo News. “Theoretically two vehicles could have the same efficiency, but if one was significantly larger, it would mean — all else equal — that it had higher emissions to build it.”

The five greenest vehicles, according to ACEEE’s ranking, are all fully electric. The top two on their list are compacts: the Mini Cooper SE Hardtop 2 Door and the Nissan Leaf. In a testament to the overall ecological advantage of electric vehicles, the next three on the ranking are SUVs: Mazda MX-30, Toyota bZ4X, and Subaru Solterra 4WD.

The next five vehicles on the greenest list are all hybrids, which get better gas mileage than traditional cars by combining a battery and an electric motor with a gas engine. Unlike an EV, they still create some tailpipe emissions, though less than conventional gas-powered cars, but they don’t need to be plugged in. An electric motor handles lower speeds and shorter distances, with the gasoline motor kicking in when more power is needed.

The "Greenest Cars" scores from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (Caitlin Murray/Yahoo News)

Four of the greenest hybrids in the ranking are sedans: the Hyundai Elantra Hybrid Blue, Kia Nero FE, Toyota Camry Hybrid LE, and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Blue. One, the Mazda MX-30 EV, is a subcompact SUV. Those cars beat over 100 EVs.

That spotlights how the American affection for ever-larger vehicles is in conflict with efforts to reduce carbon emissions, as larger automobiles tend to be less efficient and require more resources to build. As the Environmental Protection Agency reported last December, the consumers’ shift from cars to trucks to and SUVs — and to larger models in every class — completely wiped out fuel-efficiency gains within vehicle classes in 2021.

It also helps explain the absence of manufacturers who solely produce EVs from the “Greenest” list, such as Rivian, which only makes trucks and SUVs. Electric trucks and SUVs, while far better for the environment than gasoline-powered counterparts, use more electricity to operate and more energy to build than smaller electric cars.

“Rivian vehicles perform reasonably well overall and above average for their class (pickups and large SUVs, per EPA’s classification system) but are still trucks with low efficiency for an EV and a large battery pack,” Huether said.

Tesla makes sedans and the company “still has many highly rated models though and many models in particular have high efficiency,” Huether said, but none of them happened to crack the top 12 this year. (Some have in the past.)

The Honda Accord Hybrid
The Honda Accord Hybrid at the New York International Auto Show. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

However, EVs are still the greenest cars, on average, and conventional gas-powered vehicles are still the most polluting. Regardless of size, Huether said, “it would be hard to find a non-hybrid [gas-powered] vehicle that beats an EV” in terms of overall environmental damage.

The New York Times recently reported that the average new EV cost $61,488 at the end of 2022, versus an average of $49,507 for all passenger vehicles. The average new hybrid car cost $1,300 more than a conventional car, and a new hybrid SUV is almost $3,000 more than a conventional SUV, but hybrid owners will spend an average of 50%-60% less on gasoline. (EV owners spend about 70% less on electricity for their car than a conventional vehicle owner spends on gas.)

In light of that, ACEEE also created a list called “Greener Choices” of the 12 greenest non-EVs in each of their respective classes. Eight of the 12 best-in-class non-EVs were hybrids.

ACEEE uses a nationwide average for the carbon emissions from electricity, weighted to reflect where EVs are most prevalent — for instance, California’s relatively clean electrical grid is overrepresented in their average because the state leads in EV adoption. Where you charge your car matters: In a state with virtually all clean energy, like Vermont, charging creates almost no emissions, whereas charging in a fossil fuel-dependent state like Kentucky makes more than the national average.

The "Greener Cars" scores from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (Caitlin Murray/Yahoo News)

The production of heavier cars requires more energy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And because the batteries used in EVs weigh more than those in conventional vehicles, some studies have shown that EVs require more emissions to produce than conventional vehicles. Combined with the fact that trucks and SUVs are larger and less efficient than sedans, it turns out that a hybrid sedan can actually have a lower environmental impact than an electric SUV or truck.

Automakers that have made a number of relatively green hybrid models say that this creates as many short-term climate benefits as ramping up EV production.

“A little over a year ago, [Toyota CEO] Akio Toyoda made it very clear what our goal is: to reduce carbon as much as possible,” said Jason Keller, a director of policy at Toyota. “The goal is not to see who can make the most BEVs [battery electric vehicles], the goal is to reduce the most greenhouse gases in the air.”

Since the supply chain for EV components still needs to be expanded and the price remains too high for some consumers, Keller said Toyota is trying to maximize fuel efficiency across its different vehicle types rather than focusing solely on the transition to EVs. There are three Toyota models and one Lexus, which is owned by Toyota, on ACEEE’s “Greenest” list, and all but one of those are sedans. There are also three hybrids made by Toyota and one Lexus on the “Greener Choices” list for being least polluting model in their class, including SUVs and minivans.

A Mercedes Benz GLA 250 sport utility vehicle
A Mercedes Benz GLA 250 SUV. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“We are not just blindly plowing all our resources into BEVs,” Keller said. “Right now, a BEV is a luxury product for most households. We have a hybrid Prius at $27,000 that can get 57 miles per gallon.”

A spokesperson for Hyundai, which had three models on the “Greenest” list, also emphasized that they are “trying to give customers a lot of options that are eco-friendly ... at reasonable prices.” Two of those models are hybrids, but the Hyundai Kona Electric, which also made the list, has a starting retail price of $33,550, making it competitive with conventional SUVs.

Cost aside, consumers may also worry that a fully electric car will be troublesome on long road trips because of the need to recharge.

“Range is a concern,” Kraus conceded. “We have gone on longer road trips where we had to stop and charge midway. We can definitely do this again but you can’t be in a rush to get somewhere. You may need to take an hour and have a coffee.”

In part for that reason, Kraus and her husband recently replaced their old Toyota RAV4, an SUV that they took on longer trips because of its larger storage capacity, with a RAV4 hybrid.

The "Meanest Cars" scores from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (Caitlin Murray/Yahoo News)

To address “range anxiety,” Congress included funding for a nationwide network of 500,000 EV charging stations in the 2021 infrastructure law, which the Biden administration is currently distributing to all 50 states. And recent advances in battery technology research could extend an EVs range from the current 300 miles to 1,000 miles or more.

EV sales, meanwhile, are skyrocketing, but remain a very small share of the total market. In 2022, while total new vehicle sales fell 8%, EV sales grew by 65%, to 5.8% of the market.

The vast majority of vehicles still being sold in the U.S. are gasoline-powered, and ACEEE has ranked the 12 models with the greatest environmental impact on a “Meanest” list. Whereas the other lists were heavy on Asian automakers such as Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, the “Meanest” list is dominated by large trucks and SUVs from American manufacturers. The five lowest-scoring are the RAM 1500 TRX 4x4, Ford F-150 Raptor R 4WD, Cadillac Escalade V AWD, Dodge Durangon SRT AWD, and the Jeep Wrangler 4x4. All have traditional, non-hybrid, internal combustion engines.

Eric Mayne, a spokesperson for Stellantis, which owns RAM, Dodge and Jeep, took issue with the ACEEE’s methodology in making its “Greenest” and “Meanest” lists, since it does not account for the fact that consumers who need certain attributes such as trunk space cannot simply choose to purchase a compact for the sake of the environment.

“Such apples-to-oranges comparisons lack legitimacy in the marketplace, where consumers also demand vehicle attributes such as seven-passenger seating, superior tow ratings and extreme off-road capability,” Mayne wrote in an email. “While our vehicles excel in these areas, we are investing heavily — some $35 billion — in sustainable technologies that will further help customers with their purchase decisions.”

A 2023 Dodge Ram 1500 TRX on display at the 2022 Los Angeles Auto Show
A 2023 Dodge Ram 1500 TRX on display at the 2022 Los Angeles Auto Show. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Likewise, a spokesperson for General Motors, which owns Cadillac and Chevrolet (which also had a model on the “Meanest” list) noted that GM makes a wide range of vehicles, including EVs.

“The Cadillac Escalade-V and Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 are purpose-built, high-performance vehicles for niche customers,” GM’s Sean Szymkowski wrote in a statement. “Cadillac and Chevy offer a breadth of powertrain options to suit every customer — especially those focused on fuel economy and zero-emissions, such as the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Cadillac LYRIQ.”

Indeed, the Ford F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for 41 consecutive years, suggesting that many consumers prefer pickup trucks, even if they are more polluting than smaller cars. Nonetheless, Ford introduced an electric version of the F-150 last year.

But in Westfield, an affluent suburb of New York City, Kraus said she keeps getting more and more questions about her car from passersby who are wondering if an EV might be right for them.

Of switching to EVs, she said, “When are we going to do this, if not immediately?”

Cover thumbnail illustration: Caitlin Murray/Yahoo News, Natalie Cruz/Yahoo News, Getty Images