Are Electric Cars Truly Better for the Environment?

Road through the green forest, aerial view road going through forest.
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Are electric vehicles (EVs) truly better than gas cars for the environment? Overall, yes—and as time goes on, they're becoming more sustainable.

The internal combustion engine (ICE) is a mature technology that has seen only incremental improvements in the past half-century. By contrast, electric vehicles are still an emerging technology witnessing continual improvements in efficiency and sustainability. These advances, coupled with the dramatic changes in how the world produces electricity, will only make electric vehicles cleaner.

"We still have a long way to go, and we don't have the luxury of waiting," said David Reichmuth of the Union of Concerned Scientists in a 2021 interview with Treehugger.

The Need for Electric Cars

The transportation sector generates 24% around the world and 29% of total greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in the United States—the largest single contributor in the U.S.

According to the EPA, the typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year—which is the equivalent amount of carbon sequestered by 5.6 acres of forests in one year. Gas-powered vehicles also generate pollutants, from dust to carbon monoxide. EVs, on the other hand, run clean and help make our world a more livable place.

If half of all cars were electric, global carbon emissions could be reduced by as much as 1.5 gigatons. In the United States, "driving the average EV is responsible for fewer global warming emissions than the average new gasoline car," according to Reichmuth's 2021 life-cycle analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists

Comparing Electric and Gas-Powered Cars

The key to comparing gas-powered vehicles with electric ones is to get the big picture. By accounting for the entire environmental impact of vehicles, analysts are not constrained to fuel consumption alone.

Vehicle life-cycle analysis looks at different phases of construction and use, including:

  • Vehicle manufacturing
  • Driving pollution
  • Fuel consumption and sourcing
  • End-of-life vehicle disposal and recycling

Life-cycle analysis isn't globally consistent, as it depends on local electricity sourcing. For instance, an electric car run on solar-produced electricity is much cleaner than one driven on coal power. But a holistic look finds electric cars environmentally superior to gas-powered vehicles 95% of the time.

EV vs Gas-Powered: Manufacturing

Electric Car Production At a Volkswagen Factory in Zwickau

Jens Schlueter/Stringer/Getty Images

Currently, creating an EV has a more negative environmental impact than producing a gas-powered vehicle. This is, in large part, a result of battery manufacturing, which requires the mining and transportation of raw materials like cobalt.

A 2018 Vancouver study of comparable electric and gas-powered cars found that the manufacturing of an electric vehicle uses nearly twice as a gas-powered vehicle. But this represents a majority of the total emissions for EVs.

On average, roughly one-third of total emissions for EVs come from the production process, three times that of a gas vehicle. However, once the vehicle is produced, in many countries, emissions drop precipitously.

The benefits of EV driving come quickly after manufacturing. According to one study, “an electric vehicle’s higher emissions during the manufacturing stage are paid off after only two years.”

EV vs Gas-Powered: Driving Comparison

Driving conditions and driver behavior do play a role in vehicle emissions. Auxiliary energy consumption, like heating and cooling, contributes roughly one-third of vehicle emissions in any type of vehicle.

In a gas-powered car, waste engine heat is redirected to warm the car. But cooling in a gas-powered car is more energy inefficient, since it must combat energy heat. In an EV, both cabin heating and cooling are generated from the battery.

Driving behavior also matters. For example, EVs are far more efficient than gas-powered vehicles in city traffic, since combustion engine idling continues to burn fuel. This is why EPA mileage estimates are higher for EVs in city driving than on highways, while the reverse is true for gasoline cars.

Electric Vehicle Charging Station And Cars On Street In City

Choochart Choochaikupt/EyeEm/Getty Images

Braking and Vehicle Pollution

Vehicles generate particulate matter (PM) by knocking dust up from the road and from braking. Due to battery, electric vehicles are 17% to 24% heavier than comparable gas-powered cars, leading to higher particulate matter emissions from resuspension and tire wear.

Braking comparisons, however, favor EVs. Gas-powered vehicles rely on the friction from disc brakes for deceleration and stopping, while regenerative braking allows EV drivers to use the kinetic force of the motor to slow the vehicle down.

Studies show that the greater non-exhaust emissions from EVs are roughly equal to the lower particulate emissions from regenerative braking. So when it comes to driving pollution, electric and gas-powered vehicles are about tied.

Fuel Consumption

Fuel efficiency measures how effectively an engine converts the potential energy in a fuel source to movement or work. One of the biggest differences between gas and electric engines is in their fuel efficiency.

An electric vehicle converts about 77% of the battery energy into movement, while a gas-powered car converts from 12% to 30% of the gasoline's energy; much of the rest is wasted as heat.

As all vehicles age, they lose fuel efficiency. But the fuel efficiency of a gas-powered engine decreases more quickly than the efficiency of an electric motor. A Consumer Reports study found that an owner of a five- to seven-year-old EV saves two to three times more in fuel costs than the owner of a new EV saves compared to similar gas-powered vehicles.

EV vs Gas-Powered: Fuel Sourcing

Electric Kia Soul in front of solar panels

David Kuchta / Treehugger

EVs generally run on standard grid electricity, so their emissions levels depend on how clean the electricity is going into their batteries.

On grids supplied exclusively by coal, electric vehicles can produce more GHG than gas-powered vehicles. A 2017 comparison of EVs and ICE vehicles in Denmark found EVs were inefficient in reducing environmental impacts, in part because the Danish electricity grid consumes a large share of coal.

By contrast, in Belgium, where a large share of the electricity mix comes from nuclear energy, EVs have lower life-cycle emissions than gas or diesel cars.

And while electric vehicles provide the most efficiency across the United States, in specific regions plug-in hybrid vehicles may provide greater benefits than both gas-powered and electric vehicles.

How Clean Is Your Grid?

The U.S. Department of Energy's Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator allows users to calculate the greenhouse emissions of an electric or hybrid vehicle based on the electricity grid in their area.

Fueling Behavior

Charging behavior does influence the environmental impact of EVs, especially in places where the fuel mix of electricity generation changes throughout the course of the day.

Portugal has a high share of renewable power during peak hours but increases its reliance on coal during off-peak hours when most EV owners charge their vehicles. But Germany has a high reliance on solar energy, so midday charging has the greatest environmental benefit.

As David Reichmuth told Treehugger, "EVs can be part of a smarter grid," where EV owners can work with utilities so that their vehicles are charged when demand on the grid is low and the sources of electricity are clean.

EV charging station using solar energy and batteries.
Fastened charging stations use solar-fueled batteries to charge EVs.

Dafinchi/Getty Images

Vehicle Disposal and Recycling

No matter the car, scrap yard can recycle or re-sell the metals, electronic waste, and tires. The main difference between gas and electric vehicles is the battery.

Nearly all gas-powered vehicles batteries are recyclable. But most EVs are new, so EV battery recycling is still in its infancy. A successful battery recycling program needs to be developed to avoid decreasing the relative benefits of EVs.

How to Use Your EV Most Efficiently

The overall benefits of EV are clear. They generally pollute less, last longer, and rely on cleaner energy. As EV manufacturing evolves and the electricity grids get cleaner. this superiority will only improve.

  • Find a car you enjoy, and keep it on the road for as long as possible.
  • Minimize your use of heating and cooling consumption as much as possible.
  • Charge your vehicle at the cleanest time for your grid (or install solar panels at home).
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is the environmental impact of mining for electric cars?

    Mining for materials like lithium and cobalt to make electric cars causes water loss, biodiversity loss, and air and soil contamination. The extraction process itself is notoriously water- and energy-intensive, not to mention unsafe for workers. The industry has even been known to use child labor.

  • Are there enough minerals for everyone to drive an electric car?

    There is no real data supporting either argument, but most experts agree that there are not enough raw materials to replace every gas-powered car with an EV. That said, minerals from used batteries can be recycled and made into new batteries.

  • Do electric cars last longer than gas-powered cars?

    Electric cars are designed to last for longer and require less maintenance than gas-power cars. Tesla, for example, says its battery longevity is 300,000 to 500,000 miles (which could take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to rack up).

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