You may have heard the myth that electric vehicles are just as bad for the climate — or worse — than gas-powered cars and trucks. One common myth claims that the climate-warming pollution caused by manufacturing electric vehicle batteries cancels out the benefits. Not so.
Electric vehicles don’t cause more pollution in the long run
Electric vehicles, often called EVs, are responsible for less global-warming pollution over their life cycle than gas-powered vehicles, despite the fact that battery manufacturing — for the moment — increases the climate impacts of EV production.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains the issue in a nutshell: “Some studies have shown that making a typical electric vehicle (EV) can create more carbon pollution than making a gasoline car. This is because of the additional energy required to manufacture an EV’s battery. Still, over the lifetime of the vehicle, total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with manufacturing, charging, and driving an EV are typically lower than the total GHGs associated with a gasoline car.” (emphasis added)
Let’s walk through the key data leading to this conclusion, with the help of the lead author of a 2022 Union of Concerned Scientists report evaluating the lifetime impacts of electric and gasoline vehicles.
Manufacturing an electric vehicle does cause carbon pollution
Although an electric vehicle creates less climate pollution over its life cycle than a gas-powered vehicle, manufacturing an EV typically generates more pollution.
That’s mostly a result of the energy required to mine the materials used in batteries, transport them to the production facility, and manufacture them.
“However, even now, those emissions are small compared to the savings when you’re driving the vehicle,” said David Reichmuth, senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the 2022 report cited above.
Electric vehicle advantage: pollution ‘debt’ settled after about 22 months
Most of a vehicle’s emissions occur during the portion of its life when it is driven. And electric vehicles deliver a benefit no gas-powered car can: They eliminate tailpipe emissions. That goes a long way in improving air quality and climate goals.
The amount of climate pollution generated by driving an EV depends on the mix of electricity available in the region where it’s used. For example, if EV drivers live in an area where most grid power is supplied by fossil fuels, then charging up will have a bigger climate footprint than in places where most energy comes from wind and solar.
Still, Reichmuth said that driving using electricity is cleaner than gasoline even with the current electricity mix in the United States. And his research shows that as more renewables have come online in recent years, EV charging has been getting cleaner.
In 2012, only 46% of U.S. residents lived in a place where driving an average EV created less climate pollution than the most fuel-efficient gasoline car, which then was a Prius.
Today, no matter where you live, driving an average EV results in lower emissions than driving an average gas-powered car. And over 90% of the U.S. population now lives in places where driving an average all-electric vehicle produces fewer emissions than even the most efficient hybrid-gas vehicle — Hyundai’s Ioniq Blue.
Bottom line: Reichmuth’s team compared an average gas-powered sedan (32 miles per gallon) with an average-efficiency EV (300-mile-range battery) and found that the EV reduces total lifetime emissions by 52%.
“You can also think of it as the manufacturing emissions being a deficit or debt that is sort of ‘paid back’ by emissions savings,” Reichmuth said.
For the average driver — one who drives about 10,650 miles a year — “there’s a net climate benefit as long as that car’s on the road for two years,” Reichmuth said. “And most of these cars are being driven 10 to 15 years, so it really is a net benefit.”
More clean power and innovation are likely to cut pollution from electric vehicle manufacturing
In the future, adding more renewables to the power mix and continuing to make other technological advances are likely to help reduce the climate impacts of EV manufacturing.
“Some of those manufacturing emissions will be helped as we both clean up the grid and clean up transportation,” he said.
Reichmuth’s research looked at what would happen if car manufacturers switch to using renewable energy at their factories. “If you’re using 100% carbon-free electricity in battery manufacturing,” he said, “it would reduce battery emissions by 27%.”
Some emissions result from transporting materials from the point of extraction to production facilities, so electrifying the industrial trucking sector would also help improve manufacturing’s climate footprint.
Verdict: electric cars are already better for the climate than gas-fueled vehicles — but there’s room for improvement.
The transportation sector accounts for about 27% of total U.S. climate-warming pollution, making it the largest contributor to the nation’s emissions. Cleaning up passenger cars is therefore vital to addressing climate change.
Electric cars are already doing exactly that.
“It’s clear from my research and other people’s research that the average EV represents a significant emissions reduction — even when you consider battery manufacture,” said Reichmuth. “We do need to reduce the emissions from manufacturing, just as we need to reduce the emissions from driving overall.”
“But overall, if we’re trying to figure out how to maintain the mobility that we have without adding to global warming emissions already changing our climate,” he said, “it’s clear that switching from gasoline to an electric motor is part of that solution.”
Got other questions about electric vehicles? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.