EV’s dirty secret

Vehicle manufacturing takes an incredible toll on the environment and releases tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. EVs are no exception. When it comes to manufacturing alone, they are actually worse for the planet than a conventional car. For example, manufacturing a sedan with an internal combustion engine (ICE) creates about six metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, but manufacturing an electric vehicle of the same size would create more than 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Even though the manufacture of electric vehicles creates 1.3 to 2 times more greenhouse gasses than ICE vehicles, EVs “break even” with conventional gas powered cars over time. But how much do you need to drive an EV before it’s cleaner than the gas-fueled alternative? What other factors do you need to consider?

EV lifecycle emissions

When people think about car emissions, most think about the ongoing, operational pollution that comes from the tailpipe when you drive.

stock image of exhaust coming from cars on the highway
This is what we normally think about when it comes to car emissions

But, there are other types of emissions to consider, especially if you're thinking about climate change as a whole. Upstream emissions are what’s associated with producing and distributing gas or with electricity generation. As EV skeptics love to point out, non-renewable fuel still accounts for 80% of electricity production nationally, so it’s not yet spotlessly clean. Fortunately, upstream emissions can be mitigated by switching to renewable energy sources, like solar or wind power. (To learn more about upstream emissions where you live, check out the EPA’s Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator.) It also doesn't matter as much as the skeptics claim, even if your EV is powered by coal.

Then, there are the emissions from vehicle manufacturing, which we touched upon above. In addition to the carbon emissions from the manufacturing process, raw materials needed to make electric vehicle batteries, like cobalt and lithium, are acquired through difficult and hazardous mining operations, many linked to human rights violations. The massive amount of groundwater required for battery production also means making electric care can use 50% more water than manufacturing traditional combustion vehicles.

So…how bad are EVs?

To accurately compare the impact of gas cars and electric vehicles on the environment, we need to examine the complete lifecycle of the car - from manufacturing, to use, to when the cars get taken off the road. 

Gasoline powered vehicles start with manufacturing emissions, and then release 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide in tailpipe emissions for every gallon of fuel burned. Electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions, but do have associated upstream and manufacturing impact. So what does this look like over an average lifespan of a car?

Over the course of its life, a new gasoline car will produce an average of 410 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. A new electric car will produce only 110 grams
Bar chart of lifetime CO2 emissions from gas vs. electric cars

Do electric cars ever catch up?

Since EV manufacturing creates more emissions than ICE manufacturing, but their operational emissions are lower – how long does it take for an electric vehicle to “break even” with a gas powered car? When are electric cars really "cleaner" than gas cars?

Only 1.4 to 1.9 years.

Chart showing the cumulative emissions for 15 years for EVs and ICE cars
Around 2 years on the road, electric cars become cleaner than gas cars

Yup, it takes less than 2 years for an electric vehicle to catch up and surpass gas fueled cars when it comes to lifetime reduction in emissions. That’s regardless of where your electricity comes from or how good an ICE vehicle’s gas mileage.

Although no car is perfectly green, choosing the right vehicle can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. The average American owns as many as nine cars over the course of their lifetime. If all nine are gas powered, they’ll add 693 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If you buy 9 new electric cars, their lifetime carbon emissions will be 270 metric tons, or less than 40% of what would have been created if you’d chosen to buy new ICE vehicles. Plus, this calculation assumes that the electric grid doesn’t change, which we know it will. 

Two cars diverge on a road at a sig that says 10,000 miles. One heads to more pollution, and one heads to low or no additional CO2

Beyond Carbon

Carbon pollution isn’t the only concern with regards to protecting the environment. A 2019 meta-analysis found that noise pollution from human activity should be considered a serious form of environmental change. Noise pollution hurts land and sea animals, and our health, as well. The World Health Organization strongly recommends reducing noise levels from road traffic to below 53 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night. A busy street is about 75 to 85 decibels, loud enough that extended exposure can permanently damage hearing. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, are so quiet federal law requires EVs to generate artificial sounds when at low speeds to ensure pedestrian safety. Electric cars can be an important part of keeping our communities peaceful and quiet.

EVs are also important for keeping the air in our local communities clean. Research shows more electric vehicles on the road improve air quality, regardless of how the electricity is generated. Many health conditions are worsened by ozone, particulate matter, and other pollutants, and the impacts of air pollution disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged communities. Choosing an EV means the air in your neighborhood, and your driveway, will be cleaner from day one.

The green cheat code

The best way to reduce the environmental impact of a new car? Buy used! The battery and manufacturing process are responsible for 35% of EV emissions. Buying a used EV reduces your carbon emissions to only the upstream emissions needed to power your vehicle. That’s about 1.3 metric tons annually, versus up to 5.8 metric tons for ICEVs. With improving technology, we should soon rely on a greener national electric grid and be able to recycle EV batteries, further reducing their cost to the environment.

There is no way to completely eliminate carbon emissions from personal vehicle use, not even fully electric vehicles. But when it comes to protecting our planet, we don’t need to be perfect. We need to be better. The car you choose could make all the difference.

*Note on calculations:

Assumptions for calculations above include EV with a 300mi range, vehicle lifetime of 173,151mi, for both gas and electric. Assumes car is driven 11,500mi yearly. Tailpipe emissions for gas vehicles multiplied by a factor of 1.25 to account for emissions from gasoline production/transportation.

Emissions calculations for EVs taken from the EPA’s Power Profiler. The "cleanest" energy scenario is the CAMX eGRID, which uses the highest percentage of solar power nationally, and the "dirtiest" energy is the NYLI eGRID, which uses the highest percentage of gas power. National average assumes EVs generate 110g/mi with the average national fuel mix, 70g/mi with the CAMX mix, and 160g/mi with the NYLI fuel mix. Source. Source. Source. Source.

Written by River James, a writer, editor, and researcher based in San Diego, California.