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Why Car Emissions Are Not a Big Deal

06/04/2014 08:11 EDT | Updated 08/04/2014 05:59 EDT

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You must've heard this one before -- the polar ice caps are melting and sea level is rising, signalling the great, big catastrophe we all know as global warming. The apparent cause of this calamity is air pollution, which in the minds of many, is produced primarily by gas-powered vehicles. Alas, the problem isn't that simple. While car are indeed big air pollutants, they are not the biggest ones; not even close. So, if you're thinking of ditching your uber-powerful, gas-emitting Ram truck in favour of a Prius or another "environmentally-friendly" car, please reconsider, because doing so won't help the environment as much as you think (if at all). Let's examine why, shall we?

Biggest Air Pollutants

When we talk about air pollutants, we of course mean the gases produced by the combustion of fuels such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Those gases, as you may know, are responsible for something called a greenhouse effect, which in turn is responsible for global warming.

According to Statistics Canada, cars and trucks - or the road transport sector - are responsible for 74 per cent of all transport-related emissions in the world. The rest of the damage is inflicted by planes, ships and trains, with the percentages being 12 per cent, 10 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.

Seventy-four per cent sure sounds like an awful lot, doesn't it? Well, yes, but that's not the whole story. There are other things that produce greenhouse gases. In fact, about 44 per cent of those emissions in Canada actually come from stationary sources, like electricity generation, space heating, fossil fuel companies, construction, manufacturing and mining. Meanwhile, transportation accounts for only 27 per cent. In the U.S., this ratio is a little different, with electricity producing 32 per cent and transportation producing 28 per cent of all emissions (according to the EPA). The reason for the discrepancy is the fact that is more people living in the country, which equals to more cars on roads. But regardless of the differences, these numbers make it clear that cars are only a small part of a much bigger problem.

Ironically enough, the production of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid cars, which are supposed to be environmentally friendly, produce 2 per cent to 5 per cent of their total lifetime emissions. Why? Because they depend heavily on the mining of copper and nickel. To give you some perspective - the total greenhouse gas emissions of a normal car amount to between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of their total lifetime emissions. On top of that, hybrid cars are still partially gas-powered, though their fuel emissions are noticeably lower. In short, getting a hybrid won't make a dent in the continuing problems our environment is facing.

Other Problems That Affect Our Environment

Besides producing copious amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, we as a species, do plenty of other things to harm the environment.

One of them is deforestation. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide and give us oxygen in return. By disposing of them, we are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We're making it easier to pollute.

Landfills are even worse. They are those big piles of garbage you see outside cities. And what do we do with garbage? We burn it, and burning stuff produces greenhouse gases.

However, the biggest cause of pollution is population growth. More people equal more carbon dioxide since that's what we breathe out. With more people, we also get a greater demand for electricity, cars, food and other goods. This results in more emissions.

So ... Where Are We Going With This?

It may seem like we're going off-topic here with all this talk about the various sources of greenhouse emissions, but the point remains the same -- driving a gas-powered car doesn't affect the environment as much as you think. You can throw your car away and replace it with a hybrid or a bike, if you like, but the environment will still be in trouble, even if all your friends follow your noble example.

So, what's the alternative? We can write to the government to force our politicians to switch from coal-burning power plants to greener alternatives, like hydro or wind power. Those alternatives exist, so it's only a matter of political will (and a little bit of money) to make the big changes that would preserve our environment. Electricity production is the biggest issue, so we should tackle it head-on.

But all the preaching aside, drive your Ram truck guilt-free and instead think of other ways to help the environment.

Image courtesy of Adam Swank.

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