GM’s Tahoe Hybrid Wins Green Car Award: Just because it’s a hybrid, doesn’t mean its green

Does a SUV that emits more than twice as much pollution as the greenest car deserve to be called the “green” car of the year? In a controversial decision last Thursday at the LA Auto Show, the Green Car Journal awarded its coveted “Green Car of the Year Award” to the GM Tahoe Hybrid.

The award has inspired different reactions from the environmental community. Carl Pope , executive director of the Sierra Club, praised the award in the Green Car Journal press release:  "GM promised they would use hybrid technology, and use it where it would make the most difference – on their biggest vehicles. They have delivered with the Chevy Tahoe."

On the other hand, in a previous article in Time Magazine, I have been quoted as calling putting hybrid technology in a full-size SUV as akin to “putting lipstick on a pig.” 

So who is right? In a sense, we are both right. As Carl Pope points out in the press release and NRDC fully agrees, the Tahoe hybrid should end the debate whether we can substantially increase fuel economy standards of our fleet without limiting your ability to drive any kind of vehicle you’d like. And if pressed further, I’m sure Mr. Pope would also point out that according to the National Academy of Sciences, there are plenty of other, less expensive technologies to improve the fuel economy of a Tahoe. Moreover these technologies can pay for themselves in a few years (while cutting global warming and other air pollution).

But I also think that Mr. Pope (and many other environmentalists) would agree with me that an eco-minded driver should first “right size” their vehicle choice by asking the question: do I really need the larger-size, towing capacity and payload of a full-size Tahoe or could I switch to another type of vehicle with a lower pollution footprint? The best 4-door vehicle, the Toyota Prius hybrid, would emit about 40 tons of CO2 over its life; the Ford Escape Hybrid about 65 tons. But the Tahoe Hybrid would still emit about 90 tons.

Switching to other vehicles isn’t as radical as some claim. In fact, many drivers are already voting with their wallets. The high fuel prices of the last few years have cut the market for large SUVs in half, with drivers choosing instead to move to crossovers (vehicles that look like SUVs but built on lighter, more fuel-efficient car platforms), minivans and cars. Some drivers are buying fuel thrifty cars to use for their commute, and leaving their SUVs in the garage.

For those few drivers that do really need a Tahoe it may be the greenest choice. But just because it has a hybrid engine, it doesn’t mean it deserves to be called green.