Light-, medium-, and heavy-duty trucks are increasingly popular throughout the United States. But these all-American vehicles are typically known as “gas guzzlers,” consuming copious amounts of fuel compared to their passenger car counterparts.
There haven’t been nearly as many new electric or hybrid truck models, as there have been for SUVs and other electric vehicle styles. This is a critical flaw in the automotive market, considering light truck emissions are predicted to double those of standard passenger cars between 2021-2026 (165-178 g CO2/mi vs. 240-257 g CO2/mi, respectively).
But, you can make sure that your truck doesn’t add to the greenhouse gas emissions threatening the planet.
To learn more about a truck’s role in the health of the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystem, keep reading…
How Your Truck is Impacting the Environment
The automotive industry is on a generally positive trend toward environmentally friendly technology. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that all vehicle types listed below hit record high fuel economies and record low carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in model year 2019:1
- Sedan or wagon
- Car SUV
- Truck SUV (SUVs that are either 4WD or weigh more than 6,000 lbs gross vehicle weight)
- Pickup truck
- Minivan or van
Truck SUVs displayed the most substantial fuel economy improvement of 0.4 mpg. Even better, manufacturers refined this category’s CO2 emissions by 6 g/mi. On the contrary, pickups’ and minivans’ fuel economies slightly fell, while their CO2 emissions rose. Despite the falter, these vehicles’ fuel economies stayed relatively close to the record-setting performance stats.1
Such consistent innovation is critical in the automotive industry, especially for trucks. These types of vehicles are the most popular on the market, and the demand is rapidly growing.
While the sedans’ and wagon’s market share dropped to 33% from 50% in 2013, truck SUVs achieved a record high of 37% market share in 2019. At the same time, cars SUVs set another record, taking 12% of the market, and pickups rose to 16% of the market.1
Emissions Of Specific Truck Makes and Models
Some experts are a bit concerned about this trend, as sedans and wagons have the best fuel economy of these five vehicle types. This is understandable, as General Motors (GM) and Ford are two of the three largest manufacturers in the US that increased CO2 emissions rates in new vehicles by 4 g/mi, alongside Mazda, whose greenhouse gases (GHGs) rose by 13 g/mi.1
Ford trucks have notoriously low fuel economies. For example, one of the most popular models, the F-150, doesn’t exceed 25 mpg.2 On the other hand, the 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 averages at 26 mpg,3 and Mazda is only on the cusp of re-entry into the American pickup market with their new BT-50 model. It’s uncertain if this vehicle will perform better than its competitors, considering Mazda’s carbon dioxide emissions boom between model years 2014-2019.1
GM, Ford, and Mazda also had the most significant fuel economy drops – an ominous sign of where their manufacturing processes and standards could be heading.
These stats are a bit concerning, given that Ford is the top seller of light-duty trucks in the United States, specifically excelling with the Ford F-Series. General Motors owns one of the most popular light-duty trucks in the country as well: the GMC Sierra.4
Even outside these two manufacturers, light trucks make up two-thirds of all light vehicle sales nationwide. All this considered, these vehicles make up a large amount of American traffic, so it’s best for the planet to make sure you’re buying and driving sustainably.
Environmental Costs of Light- and Heavy-Duty Trucks
Cars and trucks that rely on combustible fuel — also known as “internal combustion engine” vehicles (ICEVs) — emit harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) that directly contribute to air pollution, causing smog and other issues. These are what makes up a truck’s carbon footprint.
The released gases contain:
- Nitrogen oxide (NOx): These gases can interact with water, oxygen, and other atmospheric chemicals to produce acid rain. This rain can damage ecosystems and harm wildlife. Nitrogen oxides are also known to pollute coastal waters and create smog.5
- Non-methane organic gases: These are also called non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), found in high concentrations in urban environments, where they accumulate in landfills. These compounds play a central role in lowering air quality.6
- Carbon monoxide (CO): This is one of the most well-known air pollutants that come from a truck’s tailpipe. It can be deadly to humans in high enough concentrations.7 CO isn’t likely to get to fatal levels in outdoor environments. However, too much of this gas in the atmosphere can be problematic to people with heart conditions.8
- Particulate matter (PM): This air pollutant wreaks all sorts of havoc on human and environmental health. Not only does it agitate asthma and heart conditions, but it acidifies water bodies and alters nutrient balances in water and soil.9
- Formaldehyde: Another hazardous compound, breathing this stuff in could cause throat, nose, eye, and skin irritation. Breathing too much in could lead to chest pain, wheezing, and bronchitis. More severe symptoms include fluid accumulation in the lungs, and even death. People with asthma might be especially susceptible to these effects.10
As all these emissions gather close to the ground, they accumulate, making the environment hazy and the air hard to breathe. What’s worse is that they’re terribly difficult to get rid of. These GHGs can stick around in the atmosphere for about 100 years or longer, trapping heat and raising the planet’s temperature, causing climate change which leads to a whole plethora of other problems.
But these issues aren’t unique to trucks, as passenger cars emit these gases, too. What is unique is their portion of travel emissions in 2019:
- Light-duty trucks in the US: 323.1 million metric tons, accounting for about 17% of US emissions in this sector.11
- Medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the US: 444.4 million metric tons, reportedly comprising 20% of the sector’s emissions, despite only representing 5% of the cars on the road.12,13
These vehicle types impose a much more substantial burden on environmental health than passenger cars. This fact is apparent in the current and projected fuel economy standards by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES):18
- Passenger cars: In 2020, these vehicles performed at an average of 187 g CO2/mi and are projected to remain between 165-178 g CO2/mi between 2021-2026.
- Light trucks: Last year, trucks in this division were at about 268 g CO2/mi. Experts believe they’ll stay between 240-257 g CO2/mi through 2026.
Light trucks quite literally double the amount of harmful emissions your driving produces. So, if these are your preferred or required transportation methods, you’ll need to compensate for the increased burden if you want to live eco-friendly.
How Your Truck Can Be More Eco-Friendly
It’s easy to get discouraged by all these statistics, as driving a truck might present a much higher environmental cost than you initially realized….but don’t worry. The EPA reports that trucks are “98-99% cleaner” than they were back in the ‘60s, specifically concerning pollutants that make smog. Plus, manufacturers improve their designs every year, which increasingly lowers the truck carbon footprint.
For example, even though Ford pumped out more CO2 emissions over the last several years, it’s making a comeback with the announcement of a new electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck, already gaining praise for its innovative perks:14
- The new electric vehicle will be the most powerful in the F-series – it’ll be able to power an entire home in case of an outage
- The battery can save drivers thousands over the truck’s lifetime
- Eliminates harmful tailpipe emissions typically associated with Ford trucks
It might be a while until you can get your hands on an electric truck. So, in the meantime, there are three key things you can do to minimize your vehicle’s carbon footprint.
For one, you’ll want to make sure you buy a truck from an environmentally conscious manufacturer.
For instance, Ford’s commitment to electric vehicles is a good move for mitigating climate change. Volvo also introduced a zero-emission truck, the VNR Electric, an excellent addition to the market.15
Additionally, this company invested $400 million into a new initiative, the Volvo LIGHTS (Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions), for deploying battery-electric trucks. It’s also a part of California Climate Investments, which funds the state’s cap-and-trade system.16
You should also be mindful of the type of fuel you use for your truck. Unfortunately, there are mixed findings on the distinction between these choices, confusing many truck drivers.
One study showed that using gasoline resulted in lower CO2 emissions than diesel. When testing two Volkswagen vehicles, researchers found that this difference persisted through laboratory and on-road conditions. The disparity was also confirmed by consumers’ experiences.16
Still, some experts assert that diesel engines are cleaner than gasoline engines, except for one condition:
They emit higher nitrogen oxide levels.
However, diesels are also about 30% cheaper to operate than gasoline engines, and hold roughly 12% more energy than typical gasoline engines, potentially shrinking your carbon footprint.17
Regardless, diesel engines are on the road to getting much cleaner. The EPA requires that all diesel engine highway vehicles model years 2007 and later must use ULSD fuel. This reduces particulate emissions by as much as 90%, and decreases emitted nitrogen compounds by 25-50%.
Determine which fuel your vehicle would perform best on, to reduce your truck’s environmental impact as efficiently as possible. Of course, even making all of these decisions for the best possible environmental impact, there are inevitable GHG emissions if you are driving a non-electric truck. However, you have the power to eliminate even those pesky emissions.
Offset Your Truck’s Carbon Emissions
If you drive a light-, medium- or heavy-duty truck, chances are you’re doubling the emissions of a passenger car driver. Still, there’s hope yet for the environment-minded.
With more manufacturers improving their vehicles’ fuel economy, and even introducing electric models like the Ford F-150 Lightning or the VNR Electric, there will be plenty of options for more sustainable truck driving soon, and a much lower truck carbon footprint.
In the meantime, to reduce CO2 emissions you can switch to a cleaner engine, buy from eco-conscious companies, or opt for a green vehicle like the Tesla Model 3 instead. (You can also measure your full emissions using an ecological footprint calculator.)
If these options are out of reach for you right now, fret not. Thankfully, there are now options out there that allow you to simultaneously drive your truck and take care of the planet. By supporting activities that mitigate or prevent CO2, such as tree planting carbon offsets, you can essentially erase the effects of your vehicle. You can find some of the best carbon offsets programs here.
By making wise truck driving choices, using a truck calculator and erasing the rest of your emissions with carbon offsets, you can start driving carbon neutral in no time.
Learn More About Your Emissions:
Household Carbon Calculator or Ecological Footprint Calculator? Here’s How to Pick
Carbon (CO2) Counter for Your Car & Lifestyle Choices
Flight Carbon Calculator: Emissions by Airline, Origin and Destination Airports
Carbon Footprint Calculator for Spending & Shopping Habits
3 Things Missing in EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator
EPA Kids Calculator? Try This Eco Footprint Calculator for Children Instead
How Nature.org Can Improve their Carbon Calculator Results
Food Carbon Footprint Calculator: Find Your Diet Emissions & Eat Green
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Calculator: Review Your Environmental Impact
Terrapass Carbon Calculator Could Be Better: Here’s How in 5 Steps
What is Ecological Footprint vs Carbon Footprint? How to Calculate Both
Tracking Your Ecological Impact with the Earthday.org Footprint Calculator
The Average Carbon Footprint Per Person Is Rising Fast: Is It Too Late? (10 Ways to Help Now)
1US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Highlights of the automotive trends report. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/automotive-trends/highlights-automotive-trends-report#Highlight2
2US Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. (n.d.). Fuel economy of 2021 Ford F150. Fuel Economy. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/PowerSearch.do?action=noform&path=1&year1=2021&year2=2021&make=Ford&baseModel=F150&srchtyp=ymm
3MotorTrend Staff. (2021, June 8). These are the most fuel-efficient Pickups you can buy. MotorTrend. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.motortrend.com/features/most-fuel-efficient-pickup-trucks/
4Wagner, I. (2021, March 4). Light trucks in the U.S. – best-selling models 2020 | Statista. Statista. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/204473/best-selling-trucks-in-the-united-states-from-january-to-october-2011/
5US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Basic information about NO2. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/no2-pollution/basic-information-about-no2
6Dave, P. N., Sahu, L. K., Tripathi, N., Bajaj, S., Yadav, R., & Patel, K. (2020). Emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds from a landfill site in a major city of India: Impact on local air quality. Heliyon, 6(7), e04537. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04537
7Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm
8US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Basic information about carbon monoxide (CO) outdoor air pollution. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/co-pollution/basic-information-about-carbon-monoxide-co-outdoor-air-pollution
9US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Health and environmental effects of particulate matter (PM). Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/health-and-environmental-effects-particulate-matter-pm
10Toxics Use Reduction Institute. (n.d.). Health and environment. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.turi.org/TURI_Publications/TURI_Chemical_Fact_Sheets/Formaldehyde_Fact_Sheet/Formaldehyde_Facts/Health_and_Environment
11Tiseo, I. (2021, May 10). U.S. light-duty vehicle GHG emissions 1990-2019. Statista. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1235094/us-light-duty-trucks-vehicle-ghg-emissions/
12Tiseo, I. (2021, April 23). U.S. heavy-duty vehicle GHG emissions 1990-2019. Statista. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1120519/us-med-heavy-trucks-vehicle-ghg-emissions/
13Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). (2015, August 26). Fact sheet | Vehicle efficiency and emissions standards. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.eesi.org/papers/view/fact-sheet-vehicle-efficiency-and-emissions-standards
14Zalzal, P. (2021, May 17). The introduction of Ford’s electric F-150 pickup truck is a big milestone in the race to zero-emission vehicles. Climate 411. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2021/05/17/the-introduction-of-fords-electric-f-150-pickup-truck-is-a-big-milestone-in-the-race-to-zero-emission-vehicles/
15Volvo Trucks USA. (2020, September 21). NFI begins piloting Volvo VNR electric heavy-duty trucks in Southern California. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.volvotrucks.us/news-and-stories/press-releases/2020/september/nfi-begins-piloting-volvo-vnr-electric-heavy-duty-trucks-in-southern-california/
16The International Council on Clean Transportation. (2019). Fact sheet: Europe. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/Gas%20_v%20_Diesel_%20CO2_emissions_%20EN_%20Fact%20_Sheet%202019_05_07_0.pdf
17Schildgen, B. (2018, March 18). Do diesel engines produce less CO2 than regular engines? Sierra Club. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/ask-mr-green/do-diesel-engines-produce-less-co2-regular-engines
18Leung, J. (2021, July 27). Federal Vehicle Standards | Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Retrieved August 12, 2021, from https://www.c2es.org/content/regulating-transportation-sector-carbon-emissions/