A “Green Car” is An Oxymoron

Research published in 2007 by Oxford Brookes University predicted that more cars will be built in the next 25 years than in the entire history of car-making to date: 1.48 billion by 2030, thanks to a huge increase in demand from emerging economies. But surely cars are getting greener? Well, that depends what you measure.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has said that,

“The choice of vehicle that you drive has a greater effect on the environment than any other choice you make as a consumer.”  This is because “There are enormous differences in tailpipe emissions and fuel economy, not just between different types of vehicles, but even within the same type.” 

But there is no such thing as a green car. It’s just that some are greener than others. Cars are a major contributor to Green House Gases (GHGs), cause urban and rural blight with ever-increasing road infrastructure, and pollute our air and water via exhaust, road runoff and waste from maintenance and manufacturing.

A Life Of Grime

One report noted, the car is “dirty from cradle to grave”. Analysts from Heidelberg’s Environment and Forecasting Institute in Germany took a medium-sized car and assumed that it was driven for 13,000 km a year for 10 years. They computed its life-cycle financial, environmental and health impacts.

Even before the car has reached the showroom, it has damaged air, water and land ecosystems: every car produces thousands of kilos of waste and millions of cubic metres of polluted air in the extraction of raw materials alone, say the Heidelberg researchers. Transporting the raw materials to factories produces more pollution, and burns more crude oil. Over its lifespan of 10 years, the Heidelberg researchers say that each car produces: 44.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide; 4.8 kg of sulphur dioxide; 46.8 kg of nitrogen dioxide; 325 kg of carbon monoxide; 36 kg of hydrocarbons. 

Cars produce abrasion products from tyres, brakes and road surfaces, and pollute soils and groundwater with oil, cadmium, chrome, lead, copper and zinc. Disposal of the vehicle produces more polluted air, plus PCBs and hydrocarbons. 

But surely cars are getting more fuel efficient, and less polluting? Maybe, but the contribution of cars to GHGs grows as people drive more often and for longer distances. The government is forecasting that UK road traffic will rise by 40% in the next 20 years. Can you begin to imagine what that will be like?

No wonder that one commentator has said

“When you stand in a normal city street, and the whole thing is clogged up with tail pipes, smoky buses and the interminable din from a million diesels, it’s easy to see why the environmental argument can get a toehold.” 

Who said that? Have a look below…


“Whole life vehicle waste streams – a global perspective” 26 November 2007, DRIVENet – the UK Network for the design for dismantling, reuse and recycling in road vehicles. This Oxford Brookes University-led network includes motor, engineering and research organisations –


Union of Concerned Scientists


“From cradle to grave” Environment and Forecasting Institute, Heidelberg, Germany. Cited by John Whitelegg, head of the Geography Department, Director of the Environmental Research Unit, Lancaster University. 

Guess the quote:

Jeremy Clarkson. Yes really. Motorworld. Page 62 of the Penguin edition. Perhaps we’ve got him wrong, after all….