Electric Cars and Light Trucks Have 64% Lower Life Cycle Carbon Emissions

Switching pickup trucks from gas to electric has the biggest impact.

A Ford truck in tunnel during the night


A study from the University of Michigan, sponsored by Ford, did a full cradle-to-grave study of sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks and concluded that carbon emissions from battery electric vehicles (BEV) were 64% lower than those from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV).

According to University of Michigan professor and senior author Greg Keoleian, “This is an important study to inform and encourage climate action. Our research clearly shows substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be achieved from transitioning to electrified powertrains across all vehicle classes.”

The study—titled "The role of pickup truck electrification in the decarbonization of light-duty vehicles" and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters—compared the full life cycle carbon emissions of mid-sized sedans, mid-sized SUVs, and full-sized pickup trucks. The study noted that "the vast majority of research attention has been focused on the environmental benefits of electric sedans compared to their internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) counterparts," even though sedans are just 31% of the market and light trucks (including SUVs, pickups, and vans) were 56% of sales at the time the study was written.

A graphic on Upfront carbon emissions
Vehicle cycle emissions on everything but the fuel.

Maxwell Woody et al.

The study included embodied or upfront carbon emissions using a model developed by the Argonne National Laboratory called GREET (Greenhouse gas, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation), with the data modified by the respective weights of the vehicles and batteries. It includes everything but the fuel; the fluids are oil changes and windshield washer fluid.

It is important to note that the battery-electric pickup truck in this analysis comes in at just over 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This is considerably less than half the amount I estimated in my controversial post "Life Cycle Analysis of E-Pickups Shows They're Worse than Small ICE Cars." Using this study's data, an electric pickup truck is better than any gasoline-powered car on the road.

The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the saving: An electric sedan saves 45 metric tons over its life cycle compared to gas; an electric pickup saves 74 metric tons. As noted in the study's discussion section: "While the percentage difference in emissions for different powertrain options is similar across the three vehicle classes, switching an ICEV to a BEV results in greater absolute emissions reductions as vehicle size increases, due to the greater fuel consumption of larger vehicles."

The study also examined the carbon content of the electricity supply across the U.S. and found that wherever you are, electric cars and trucks still have lower emissions than ICEVs. That's because ICEVs are so incredibly inefficient at converting energy into forward motion. They note also, as I have, that the electricity supply is decarbonizing and batteries are getting better so that the numbers will only get better over time.

“Deployment of electric vehicles and expansion of renewable energy resources like solar and wind should be done at the same time,” lead author Maxwell Woody said in a statement. “The benefit of each is increased by the development of the other.”

The study authors also conclude, much like Treehugger, that just electrification isn't going to be enough.

"Though vehicle electrification can substantially reduce GHG emissions, electrification alone is insufficient to decarbonize the transportation sector. Grid decarbonization and optimized charging schemes will increase the benefits of electrification. Even with electrification, rapid grid decarbonization, and optimized charging schemes, additional steps may be required to reduce transportation emissions and meet mitigation targets. This could include decreasing VMT (e.g. decreasing travel demand through teleworking, increasing vehicle occupancy), improving fuel economy (vehicle lightweighting, aerodynamic design, improving rolling coefficient), vehicle downsizing (within and between vehicle classes), optimal trip assignment (matching vehicle to trip needs), and shifting to alternative forms of transportation (walking, cycling, or public transportation)."
Comparison of vehicles
A look at lifetime cradle-to-grave GHG emissions in grams CO2e/mile.

Maxwell Woody et al 2022 Environ. Res. Lett. 17 034031

In a previous post, thought by many readers to be the dumbest article ever in Treehugger, I concluded that a small gas-powered car would have lower life cycle emissions than a big electric pickup. I calculated the sedan's emissions to be 258 grams of CO2 per kilometer (413 grams of CO2 per mile), not out of line with this study's finding of 373 to 420 grams of CO2 per mile. However, based on a far higher estimate of the upfront carbon for the BEV pickup, I calculated it to have emissions of 262 grams of CO2 per kilometer (420 grams CO2 per mile). if you accept this study's estimate for the pickup of 182 to 207 grams of CO2 per mile, then my thesis was incorrect, although I still find the vehicle emissions cycle, comparable to the upfront carbon of 16 metric tons, to be surprisingly low.

However, a fundamental part of my thesis remains true: Electric pickups still have a big carbon footprint, 41% higher than an electric sedan. That's why the study authors concluded that lightweighting, aerodynamics, downsizing the vehicles, or shifting to walking or cycling are still important. The full life cycle emissions of a continent full of electric pickup trucks are still too high.

View Article Sources
  1. Atherton, Lori. "Study: Greater greenhouse gas reduction for pickup truck electrification than for other light-duty vehicles." University of Michigan News, 4 March 2022.

  2. Woody, Maxwell, et al. "The role of pickup truck electrification in the decarbonization of light-duty vehicles." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 17, no. 3, 1 March 2022. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac5142