Are Electric Cars Actually Better for The Environment?

There’s no doubt that climate change is one of the most pressing concerns of our time. As an individual, that means not just thinking about our carbon footprint but also our “climate shadow”. According to this Mic article, climate journalist Emma Pattee explains that your climate shadow refers to “how the sum of our life’s choices influence the climate emergency.” One action you may consider taking to reduce your environmental impact is to trade in your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle. But are electric cars better for the environment? The answer is generally “yes,” but it is more nuanced than that. Read on to learn more about what to consider.

Are Electric Cars Better for The Environment? | Metromile

Are electric cars more environmentally friendly than gas cars? 

If you’re considering switching to an electric vehicle and in the research phase, you want to know if electric cars are better for the environment. 

When it comes to emissions while driving, the answer is a definitive “yes”. Electric vehicles (EV) have zero tailpipe emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

On top of that, electric vehicles are more energy-efficient, with stating, “Electric vehicles (EVs) are more efficient than their gasoline-powered counterparts. An EV electric drive system is only responsible for a 15% to 20% energy loss compared to 64% to 75% for a gasoline engine.”

These two significant points make electric vehicles an attractive option. On the surface, it makes them more environmentally friendly as well, but there’s more to it. 

Though electric cars have no tailpipe emissions, they may add carbon pollution based on how the electricity is generated to charge the car. 

For example, if the electricity that charges the vehicle comes from sources like natural gas or coal, then there will be some carbon pollution. However, if the electricity comes from renewable sources such as solar power or wind, there won’t be added pollution. 

Unfortunately, if you’re in the U.S., fossil fuels are the main way electricity gets powered. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of 2020, roughly 61% of electricity was generated from fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal, as well as petroleum. Approximately 20% of electricity was generated via renewable resources.

So while electric vehicles are beneficial due to the lack of emissions, it’s essential to look at the bigger picture. The energy source fueling the electricity can be somewhat problematic. But there’s some good news. 

The EPA combats the myth that electric vehicles are worse for the climate and unequivocally states, “Electric vehicles typically have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging.”

How does the way electric cars are made affect the environment? 

Electric vehicles may have fewer emissions and be better for the environment, but what about the way they’re made? 

There are growing concerns about manufacturing electric vehicles, especially as it relates to the environmental impact of electric car batteries. The “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave: How Electric Cars Beat Gasoline Cars on Lifetime Global Warming Emissions” report (pg 31) states:

“The largest manufacturing difference between gasoline and electric cars, of course, is the production of the lithium-ion battery. Emissions from producing the battery come from extracting raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, copper, and iron ores, processing these materials into finished metals, and then fabricating them into the parts of the battery. Finally, when the battery is assembled and installed in the car, there are global warming emissions from the assembly.”

Though the manufacturing of electric vehicles may contribute to global warming, the report also states, “On average, battery-electric vehicles have much lower global warming emissions than comparable gasoline vehicles, despite higher emissions from vehicle manufacturing.” (pg 31)

The EPA agrees, showing lower greenhouse gases (GHG) for the lifecycle of an electric vehicle compared to a gasoline vehicle. 

When considering emissions, you can look at direct emissions, which relate to tailpipe emissions, as well as do a lifecycle analysis to look at emissions throughout the manufacturing and production process.

As you can see in the image below, taking into account total greenhouse gases from manufacturing and end-of-life (which includes recycling and disposal) as well as operation, electric vehicles still have fewer overall emissions. 

Source/credit: EPA

So while electric cars aren’t entirely without a carbon footprint or emission-free, from a lifecycle perspective, it has fewer emissions and may be the lesser of two evils. 

Are electric car batteries recycled?

As noted above, there are concerns about the environmental impact of electric car batteries. Manufacturing them can lead to more emissions, but through the overall lifecycle, it still comes out as a win. 

But as electric vehicles grow in popularity, a new problem has come to the forefront — how to recycle all of the lithium batteries. An article on notes that many current electric vehicle batteries aren’t set up to be recycled, which only adds to the problem as more electric vehicles hit the market. 

Given this issue, the U.S. government is working to create solutions with the ReCell Center, an initiative by the Department of Energy (DOE) that helps recycle lithium-ion batteries

A CNBC article notes that car manufacturer Ford is working with a startup to reuse the materials from electric vehicle batteries. 

Currently, there isn’t a perfect solution to this issue but according to the EPA, it’s a work-in-progress. The EPA website notes, “Recycling EV batteries can reduce the emissions associated with making an EV by reducing the need for new materials. While some challenges exist today, research is ongoing to improve the process and rate of EV battery recycling.”

Are electric vehicles better for the environment if they’re not zero emissions?

If you’re thinking of buying an electric car, consider the pros and cons first. If your primary reason for going electric is the environment, you might wonder, “Are electric vehicles better for the environment if they’re not zero emissions?”

Based on the data above, it’s clear that in many cases, the answer is still “yes”. While EVs have no emissions while driving, they still create emissions in the manufacturing process.  

The Wall Street Journal worked with researchers at the University of Toronto to compile data about electric vehicle vs gas CO2 emissions and created an interactive illustration with their findings. For their example, they compared a Tesla Model 3 and Toyota Rav4. 

Based on The Wall Street Journal data, we’ve included the chart below. 

Distance Driven (miles)
CO2 emissions
Electric carTraditional car
0 (manufacturing plant) 12.2 tons7.4 tons
20,60014.7 tons14.7 tons
100,00024.1 tons42.7 tons 
200,00036.0 tons 78.0 tons 

As you can see, in the manufacturing plant, the electric car creates more emissions at first. What’s interesting is at the 20,600 mileage point, both cars are even. After that point, the electric car continues to have fewer emissions than its gas counterpart. 

So even if EVs aren’t zero-emission, the data shows that they can be a better alternative than traditional cars in the long run. 

The bottom line 

If you’re thinking of opting for an electric vehicle, it’s natural to wonder “Are electric cars better for the environment?”. While there are concerns about the environmental impact of electric car batteries, it’s an issue that is being addressed and in the long run, EVs have fewer emissions. Another way to reduce your carbon footprint is to drive less. If you’re a low-mileage driver, then it makes sense to switch to pay-per-mile car insurance. Why pay for miles you aren’t driving, when you can pay only for the miles you actually drive, plus an affordable base rate? Check out your potential savings with a quote from Metromile

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, podcast host of the Mental Health and Wealth show, and author of Dear Debt. She’s a cat mom to two jazzy cats, Miles and Thelonious, an amateur boxer, music lover, and needs coffee to function.