While they are marketed as “environmentally friendly,” it turns out that energy-efficient cars might have actually hurt the environment. According to new Ben-Gurion University research, after Israel launched a program to encourage consumers to purchase these cars, people drove them more frequently and at greater distances.

Energy-efficient car

Energy-efficient car Photo Credit: Shutterstock

They were supposed to be a step in the right direction: cars marketed as “environmentally friendly” were meant to reduce damage to the environment. However, recent research conducted at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found that despite the well-meaning intentions, these green initiatives may have done more harm than good.

In an effort to encourage people to buy energy-efficient cars, Israel launched a program in 2009 to encourage consumers to purchase them by lowering taxes – a program that was based on the benefits of the car’s efficiency. Within a year, the market share of these cars jumped by 71 percent, a seeming success for planet Earth.

However, BGU researchers have found that in spite of the positive goal motivating these incentives, the push to put more of these vehicles on the road might have actually hurt the environment because people drove them more frequently and at greater distances.

“Policymakers with really good intentions are not always aware of the way people will respond to their policies,” says Dr. Stav Rosenzweig, a researcher in BGU’s Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management.

Dr. Rosenzweig and her colleagues looked at data from the year before the 2009 legislation went into effect compared to the years following. They discovered that the program had two significant unintended consequences.

The first is that since the cars were thought to be eco-friendly, the vehicles encouraged people to actually drive more frequently and longer distances, thus negating the intended outcome.

Secondly, as green vehicle prices dropped, this forced the prices of other vehicles on the market to drop in an effort to stay competitive. This meant more cars are the road – bad news for the environment.

The BGU researchers conclude that there is still a place for eco-friendly cars in the fight against pollution. However, a broader public policy is needed that should include a campaign to increase public awareness of how driving affects pollution, regardless of the type of car being driven. Additionally, the research team recommends encouraging the use of public transportation and opening more lanes for buses and taxis.