Car Carbon series: cool new animation, plus the jaw-dropping impact it left out
This is the first article in a "Car Carbon" series that explores the intersection of cars, oil and climate change. As the headlines fill with the expanding fights over tar sands pipelines (Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, KinderMorgan Transmountain, and others), I thought it would be a good time to shine a light on the primary source of our oil demand -- our cars.
Let's start with some eye candy.
The folks at CarbonVisuals.com have produced yet another beautiful and information-packed animation about our carbon pollution. A couple years ago I featured one of their animations in an article about New York City's carbon footprint and Hurricane Sandy. Now the digital masters at Carbon Visuals are back with a whirlwind tour of the world's cars and the resulting resource and climate pollution impacts.
Here it is:
Missing from this great animation, however, is the 16 billion tonne elephant in the room.
The 16 billion tonne elephant
Carbon Visuals calculated that around 1.3 billion tonnes of resources -- metal, plastics, glass -- go into all the world's cars. To give visual context they created the graphic on the right in which this billion tonne cube of resources dwarfs some of the world's most famous skyscrapers.
However, they left out one resource that goes into our cars that is twelve times larger. What I'm talking about, of course, is gasoline.
Sixteen billion tonnes of gasoline will have to be put into today's cars for them to function. I've added this gasoline resource to the top of Carbon Visual's resource cube. This towering orange obelisk would reach 23,000 feet into the sky.
You can click the graphic to view it full size.
When it comes to the resources that go into our cars, gasoline clearly dominates.
Recycled vs discarded as trash
A more important metric in my mind is how much of these resources end up as trash when we are done using the cars.
Let's start with the 1.25 billion tonnes of metal, plastic and glass. Around 20%, mostly the plastics, will become trash. The remaining 80%, mostly metals, will be recycled and reused. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports:
"Each year, nearly all of the 27 million cars around the world that reach the end of their useful life are recovered for recycling. Automotive recyclers now can recover nearly 80 percent of the total materials by weight from a vehicle … More than 25 million tons of materials are recycled from vehicles each year ... Five million tons are disposed of in landfills each year."
That means around 0.25 billion tonnes of trash will result from all the metal, glass, rubber and plastics when people are done using all today's cars.
In comparison, the gasoline will create sixty times more trash.
All 15.75 billion tonnes of gasoline will be dumped directly into the environment as climate pollution. None of it will be recycled.
Billions of tonnes of that climate pollution will remain in our atmosphere for decades to centuries, driving dangerous climate disruptions. Several billion tonnes more will dissolve into our oceans where they will turn to acid, intensifying global warming's "evil twin" -- ocean acidification.
Psychologically it is easy to lose appreciation for the fact that gasoline absolutely dwarfs the rest of the car. We see the metal, plastic, rubber and glass that go into a car -- but not the gasoline. We don't see the gasoline when it goes in and we don't see it when it gets dumped back out as climate pollution.
Out of sight, out of mind. Out of control.
In my next "Car Carbon" article I'll shift the focus from the global level down to the role individual vehicle choices play in the demand for oil.
Geeky Details: The Carbon Visuals animation says that the world's cars produce ten million tonnes of CO2 each day, and that the average car lasts 16.7 years. That means today's cars will produce 61 billion tonnes of CO2 over their lifespan: 10 MtCO2/day * 365 days/year * 16.7 year lifespan = 61,000 MtCO2 = 61 GtCO2.
The weight of CO2 is 3.87 times more than the weight of the gasoline that it came from. This is because each molecule of carbon in the gasoline is combined with two heavier molecules of oxygen from the air. Dividing the weight of the CO2 by this conversion ratio (61 GtCO2 / 3.87) yields 15.8 billion tonnes of gasoline.
The orange gasoline obelisk in my graphic is scaled to be the same density as the metal, plastic and glass cube (each pixel in height represents the same number of tonnes).
If I were to add the weight of the resulting CO2 to this graphic it would tower nearly four times higher. The CO2 obelisk would reach 82,000 feet above the earth -- far into the stratosphere. And that is after it was compressed to be the same density as steel and glass! If you were flying by it at cruising altitude in a commercial jetliner -- not recommended -- it would tower another 40,000 to 50,000 feet above your window.