Car Carbon Footprint Calculator: Choose Your Car’s Year, Make, and Model

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 16, 2021

It is common knowledge that cars emit greenhouse gasses, but do you know how much CO2 your car emits? Well, now there is a car carbon footprint calculator that you can use to see if you are doing everything you can to reduce your carbon footprint.

Driving down the road with your seat-belt buckled up, following the speed limit, and carpooling with your coworkers to save emissions… It all feels harmless, right? You’re minimizing your environmental impact and being a safe driver all at the same time!

Sure, you can consolidate everyone to a single car – or even drive an electric or hybrid vehicle (also known as a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, PHEV) – but all vehicles exert a negative impact on the planet, one way or another.

The negative effects typically come from direct emissions (i.e., tailpipe fumes) or the manufacturing process, before the car ever hits the road.

Fortunately, you don’t have to settle for the environmental damage. By using a car carbon footprint calculator, you can discover the precise effects your car imposes on the environment, and get to work in mitigating them through carbon offset companies. Understanding your car’s environmental effect this way will help shrink your carbon footprint, without compromising your ability to travel.

An 8 Billion Trees bar chart showing the CO2 emissions of different vehicles and fuel types, showing how an electric car that is charged on a 100% coal electric grid actually emits more Co2 than a car that uses petrol.

How Does Your Car Carbon Footprint Affect the Environment?

Whether you’re driving to work or traveling cross-country, the emissions from your car can hurt the Earth. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average passenger vehicle is responsible for releasing 5 tons of carbon dioxide every year, based on a fuel economy of 22 mpg. A car will likely continue performing at this capacity if the driving’s kept to roughly 11,500 miles per year.1

Of course, this fluctuates slightly, depending on the specific make and model, the car’s fuel economy, and its current mileage.

Here are some fast facts to help you hone in on a specific estimate of what your vehicle might be emitting:1

  • Burning a single gallon of gasoline produces 8,887 grams of CO2. On the other hand, diesel emits 10,180 g CO2.
  • The typical passenger vehicle’s tailpipe releases 404 g CO2 per mile.
  • Hybrids can still have tailpipe emissions! Only fully electric cars will avoid emitting carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons. However, measuring a PHEV’s emissions are much trickier than they are for a gas-powered vehicle.
  • Switching the type of fuel you use does not change your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by much. Many people believe that buying gasoline blended with ethanol will somehow change their environmental impact.* However, fuel blends are highly variable. Although fuel blends with ethanol will lower your fuel economy a bit, it won’t do much to your emission levels.

*This belief stems from the fact that “ethanol has less carbon per gallon than gasoline,” as stated by the EPA.1

With all this said, if you drive anywhere or ride in any vehicle other than electric models, you are contributing to transportation emissions to some extent. But even electric vehicle (EV) owners aren’t off the hook. Cars can produce carbon emissions even when you’re not driving.

Emissions from Gas and Electric Vehicle Manufacturing and Distribution

The manufacturing and distribution process is where EVs begin pumping out GHGs. All the materials and machinery needed to put together a car require resources, often much more than the car will ever consume during its lifetime.

Of all the components needed to assemble an electric car, the most controversial is the battery in terms of energy consumption. Although most scientists acknowledge that EV batteries present sustainability challenges, their environmental burden is debated.

On the one hand, some researchers say that EV batteries have significantly lower emissions levels than standard internal combustion engines (ICEs). On the other, a German working publication asserted that EV batteries’ CO2 emissions are “in the best case, slightly higher than those of a diesel engine.”2

Each claim indeed inspires strong opposition from the other side. No matter which perspective you support, it’s clear that this is one of the most energy-consumptive parts of an EV. Estimates show that about 50 percent of an EV battery’s lifecycle emissions are attributed to the electricity used to manufacture and assemble it.2

Switching to more efficient hardware and renewable power sources could significantly lower this facet of EV manufacturing.

Wind turbines generating renewable energy alongside a highway in California, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

The specific number of total emissions from the production of an ICE vehicle versus a PHEV or EV depends on a few factors, especially the car’s make and model. For example, you wouldn’t expect a Jeep Cherokee to have taken the same amount of materials and power to make a Ford Focus.

A car’s lifespan typically includes these stages (except for the use stage, when it’s driven by the owner):

  • Raw material recovery
  • Material processing and fabrication
  • Parts production
  • Vehicle assembly
  • Vehicle disposal and recycling

This entire process entails numerous energy-consuming activities using materials including plastic, rubber, steel, lead, and more.

Within these primary stages, several processes each take a designated amount of energy and produce varying emissions. For example, shape casting aluminum and iron emits 6.8 CO2 lbs/lb and 3.7 CO2 lbs/lb, respectively. Welding alone produces 136.7 CO2 lbs/lb, and even painting contributes to a car’s lifetime emissions, reaching an average of 590.8 CO2 lbs/lb.3

Essentially, no matter what type of car you choose to drive, you’ll inevitably contribute to global carbon emissions.

How Do Old Cars Impact the Environment?

Modern technology has done wonders for reducing most vehicles’ environmental impacts. But what about the models from the ‘90s (and even some from earlier decades) that are still out and about on public roads? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you think.

Over the years, vehicle standards have changed dramatically to improve the environment’s and drivers’ health. The EPA states that modern cars, specifically passenger cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks, are 99 percent cleaner than models from the ‘70s, as far as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle emissions are concerned. Heavy-duty trucks and buses have also improved by about 99 percent.4

Another significant change that distinguishes the relative performance of a 1970s car versus a model from the 2000s is the fuel quality. The EPA started phasing out lead in gasoline during this time and outlawed it entirely after 1995. Thanks to this change, lead concentrations in the air fell by 94 percent between 1980 and 1999.4

This paints a pretty dire picture for drivers with older vehicles. Yet, the issue may not be so black-and-white. In 2020, a report from the United Kingdom (UK) showed that newer cars were producing more carbon dioxide than their older counterparts.5

Instead of undercutting previous models’ emissions levels, vehicles released since 2017 produced 7 percent more emissions than older ones. This has led many to worry about whether the UK is backtracking in their climate fight.5

Make Smart, Sustainable Driving Choices with a Car Carbon Footprint Calculator

The environmental impact of driving is a lot more complex than you might have realized. While some vehicles, like PHEVs and EVs, seem to produce negligible effects, earlier portions of their life cycles might be more burdensome to the earth than you think. Luckily, you can skip the guesswork and use a car carbon footprint calculator to determine exactly how much your driving affects the environment.

Although nearly every car will impart some sort of pressure on the environment, some are more damaging than others. Newer models tend to have fewer detrimental effects on the planet. However, some studies show that you might be worse off with these cars, if they’re not made sustainably.

If you’re stuck deciding what type of vehicle is best for your new green lifestyle, the best option is generally an electric vehicle. Research models like the Tesla Model 3 and similar cars to determine which offers the most eco-friendly benefits.

And of course, you can still erase even those pesky emissions from the manufacturing phase by using carbon offsets from a trusted carbon offset provider. With these, you are not only making your car carbon neutral, but helping to restore ecosystems and rehabilitate wildlife.

Learn More About Your Carbon Footprint:


References

1US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Greenhouse gas emissions from a typical passenger vehicle. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle

2Hausfather, Z. (2019, May 13). FactCheck: How electric vehicles help to tackle climate change. Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-how-electric-vehicles-help-to-tackle-climate-change

3Argonne National Laboratory. (2010). Energy-consumption and carbon-emission analysis of vehicle and component manufacturing (ANL/ESD/10-6). US Department of Energy. https://greet.es.anl.gov/files/vehicle_and_components_manufacturing

4US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). History of reducing air pollution from transportation in the United States. https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/accomplishments-and-success-air-pollution-transportation

5Jolly, J. (2020, February 27). New cars producing more carbon dioxide than older models. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/feb/28/new-cars-producing-more-carbon-dioxide-than-older-models