Electric Cars Are Greener Than Gas, Literally Everywhere

Tesla 3 from above

There is, however, a caveat.

I was going to write a post this morning about a study produced by advocacy group Transport & Environment that says electric cars produce fewer emissions everywhere in the European Union, even coal-dependent Poland. I mean, check out these eye-popping numbers:

electric car emissions chart

© Transport & EnvironmentThen I came across a just released study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle from the University of Michigan that furthers this argument. Snappily titled Fuel Sources for Electricity in the Individual Countries of the World and the Consequent Emissions from Driving Electric Vehicles, the study finds that electric cars produce fewer emissions than their gas powered equivalent in every country in the world, even Botswana and Gibraltar, which produce 100% of their electricity from coal and oil respectively. But just how green they are varies a staggering amount. Here's how Forbes reported on this study:

...since Albania generates 100% of its electricity from hydroelectric power, any EV on the roads there is a 5,100-MPG champ. On the other end of the spectrum lies a country like Botswana. Since it gets all of its electricity from coal and oil, any electric vehicle there is like a 29-MPG car, a bit better than the average new vehicle in the U.S. Speaking of the United States, the average EV here gets 55.4 MPGghg.

That said, a couple of things should be noted about this study: It doesn't take into account emissions created during manufacturing (which are higher for electric vehicles), and it appears to be looking at average vehicle emissions—meaning small, low range EVs are being pitted against big, fat SUVs.

Which brings me to a rather over dramatized headline in the Financial Times: Electric cars' green image blackens underneath the hood. Here, the FT cites an MIT study that finds large electric cars—like the Tesla Model S 100D— can produce 61,115 kg of CO2 equivalent over the course of 270,000km of driving once manufacturing emissions are taken into account. This is compared to 51,891 for a small, gas-powered car like the Mitsubishi Mirage. That's assuming, however, that the car is driven in the relatively coal-dependent US Midwest, and that the cars' lifespans are the same (a questionable assertion given the relative mechanical simplicity of an electric vehicle).

The message here, as the Financial Times itself points out, is not that electric cars are dirtier than gas cars. After all, a BMW 7 series produced nearly twice the emissions of the Tesla in the same study—and electric cars are always greener than equivalent sized non-electric cars. It's that putting an electric drivetrain in an oversized car and giving it more range than it needs is not the greenest way to fix our transportation problems. Instead, we need a multi-pronged approach that goes something like this:

1) Switch all vehicles to electric drivetrains.
2) Clean up the electrical grid so they run on renewables.
3) Encourage the use of smaller vehicles with only as much range as is realistically needed.
4) Promote ridesharing and alternatives to car ownership, so manufacturing emissions are spread over a greater number of passenger miles.
5) Rethink planning and transportation so that cars aren't necessary.

[Note: This list was updated to include the importance of cleaning up the grid.]

I write a lot about electric cars. I drive two plug-in vehicles. They offer a significant improvement over their gas- and diesel-powered equivalents. But they are by no means a panacea.

We can do better.