Gaining traction: Why vehicle and engine choice make a huge difference

Most Canadians are concerned about climate change, yet their actions as consumers paint a contradictory picture. In his second article in a series, Kim Lonsdale illustrates how making better vehicle and engine choices can help make actual headway in terms of reducing our carbon emissions.


When buying a new vehicle, people who are concerned for the environment will want to compare their alternatives – not just considering how vehicle A stacks up against vehicle B – but also how particular features within a given model impact the environment. A great place to begin this comparison is the 2017 Fuel Consumption Ratings published by Natural Resources Canada (NRC).  

According to, the Ford F-Series is by far Canada’s top-selling vehicle, while the Honda Civic is the only car among the top five best sellers. Both are modern marvels of design, reliability and passenger safety and offer many exciting features – but their carbon emissions are quite different.

In the early 1970’s, an OPEC embargo caused oil prices to quadruple from $3 to $12 per barrel. This triggered a shift by automakers to improve fuel economy across the entire vehicle fleet. It also heralded the introduction of the Honda Civic, which quickly gained a reputation for being fuel-efficient, reliable, and environmentally friendly. In response to consumer demand, newer models are featured to deliver greater comfort, performance, and sportiness.

Read Part One

Canada’s National Research Council reports that Canadians drive their vehicles an average of 15,200 kilometres per year. Based on this distance, NRC’s Fuel Consumption Ratings indicate that choosing the Civic sedan over the hatchback model would reduce carbon emissions by 10 per cent, or about 200 kilograms. Buyers can improve this further by choosing the 1.5-liter engine over the 2.0-liter engine, and in doing so will reduce their emissions by another 12 per cent, preventing 288 kilograms of emissions from being emitted. These two choices represent a 22 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

Similarly, Canada’s best-selling truck, the 2017 Ford F150, presents some choices that can present less of an environmental burden.  It comes in both two and four-wheel drive and there may be reasons to buy either one, however on average the 4-wheel drive generates over 8 per cent more carbon emissions – or about 350 kilograms of carbon emissions each year. However, a much more impactful consideration for the environmentally-minded is the engine choice.  Ford offers three gasoline engine choices in the F Series, one V6 option and two V8s. The difference between the least and most powerful engine choices amounts to a 20 per cent difference in annual carbon emissions, or about 840 kilograms of carbon emissions.   

For Canadians driving the average distance of 15,200 kilometers – the difference between choosing the average Honda Civic over the average F-Series is a reduction in emissions of 79 per cent, or 1,979 kilograms – almost two tonnes of annual carbon emissions! If over 80 per cent of Canadians, and an even greater percentage of British Columbians indicate that they are concerned or very concerned about climate change – why are less-fuel efficient pickups made by the Big Three automakers outselling Canada’s best- selling car by a factor of over five to one? 

Why is this important? In 2015, tailpipe emissions were responsible for 12.6 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Canada – or about 91 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (not including emissions from freight transportation).  If people were choosing vehicles that emit almost 80 per cent less carbon into the atmosphere, Canada’s overall emissions would be reduced by 5.6 per cent, or about 40 megatons. To put this into perspective, there are only 35 countries in the world have total carbon emissions higher than 40 megatons

Surely it makes more sense to pick low hanging fruit than it does to chop down the tree – but this is exactly what we’re doing by seeking to constrain sectors that are vital to the economic prosperity of all Canadians - rather than just making better choices about the vehicles we drive.

Kim Lonsdale is a business analyst and management consultant based on Vancouver Island.  

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