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Are Electric Vehicles Better For The Planet

By Lauren Jerome Guest Writer
Jul 23, 2021

Climate change is so hot right now. (Sorry, pun intended). As temperatures continue to rise, along with sea levels and occurrences of extreme weather events, it's never been more clear that immediate action is imperative to curb global warming's imminent effects. And a big part of that is finding alternatives to fossil fuels.

Electrification is considered a crucial component in this split. And since transportation is the biggest carbon emitter in the US at 29 percent, it only makes sense to cut carbon emissions from cars.

Table of Contents

  1. Enter Electric Vehicles (EVs)
  2. What's the Carbon Footprint of Electric Cars vs. Gasoline?
  3. What Is the Environmental Impact of Electric Cars?
  4. Are Electric Cars as Dependable as Gas Cars?
  5. How Do I Know Which Electric Car I Should Buy?
EV Charging Chuttersnap Unsplash
EV Charging. Photo Credit: Chuttersnap on Unsplash

Enter Electric Vehicles (EVs)

No, they're not a perfect solution. Skeptics are quick to bring up the size of an electric car's carbon footprint due to battery production and a still fossil-fuel-powered grid.

Regardless, experts agree that a significant transition to electric vehicles will help climate change by significantly reducing our fossil fuel emissions. But also: man, are they cool. (Have you seen the Tesla Model 3 or the Lucid Air? Such sleek, futuristic suavity.) 

Here we tackle some of the FAQs and common questions related to electric cars and climate change.

Tesla Model 3 in Traffic Gabe Pierce Unsplash
Photo Credit: Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

What's the Carbon Footprint of Electric Cars vs. Gasoline?

Oh, the trusty carbon footprint question. The considerations go well beyond simply fueling and driving in the face-off between EVs and ICEVs (that's internal-combustion-engine vehicles). It's a complex calculation that needs to consider the vehicle's entire life span from manufacturing to disposal.

At the production stage, an electric car's carbon footprint is a bit larger than that of the conventional vehicle due to the impact of making the batteries. Once it gets on the road, though, the EV catches up and eventually surpasses the traditional gas-run car on the green score after only about six to 16 months of driving.

UCSUSA EV Gas MPG Map
Image Credit: UCS USA. The mpg (miles per gallon) value listed for each region is the combined city/highway fuel economy rating of a gasoline vehicle that would have global warming emissions equivalent to driving an EV.

Another critical part of the equation: location. If someone is charging their EV where the grid is largely fueled by coal, then it has a much larger footprint than when charged on a grid powered by renewable energy. Thankfully, our electricity is becoming increasingly clean. Now, 94 percent of Americans live in a region where driving an EV creates fewer emissions than driving a 50 mile-per-gallon gas-powered car.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) performed an exhaustive life span analysis of the carbon footprint of electric cars vs. gasoline. They concluded that:

"No matter how you slice it, the electric car's carbon footprint is smaller than its gas-powered counterparts."

So, you can sleep easy while your EV is charging, knowing you're helping to cut down on emissions by not fueling up at the gas station.

Charging EVs

What Is the Environmental Impact of Electric Cars?

The carbon emissions from cars start at production before they even hit the road. And EVs have an especially heavy footprint at this stage due to their lithium-ion batteries. The energy used to produce these batteries is the greatest contributor to the carbon footprint of building an electric car. The extraction and refining of the raw materials used to make the batteries—things like cobalt, lithium, and nickel—also have a sizeable environmental impact. Cobalt is especially problematic.

According to the UCS, the production of a midsize EV is responsible for 15 percent more emissions than that of a gas-powered midsize. And that proportion increases substantially to 68 percent for larger SUVs (bigger battery equals bigger footprint).

As EVs become more the norm, auto companies across the board have vowed to implement greener energy at the production level. According to the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT), decarbonizing the grid, recycling old batteries, and further battery innovations could decrease battery production emissions by about half.

EV Charging Ernest Ojeh Unsplash
EV Charging. Photo Credit: Ernest Ojeh for Unsplash

Are Electric Cars as Dependable as Gas Cars?

In a word: yes. But it also depends on what you're looking for in a vehicle. EVs are low-maintenance, efficient, and produce virtually no tailpipe emissions. They're also arguably more fun to drive. The ride is smooth, the pickup is fast, and most models can deliver on the oh-so-satisfying "one-pedal-driving" (taking your foot off the accelerator to slow down via regenerative braking). Plus, of course, you have EV-owner bragging rights at parties. 

The most significant factor when considering an EV, though, is the range. The average American drives less than 30 miles a day. The range of an EV can span from the Mini Electric's 113 miles to Tesla Model S Long Range Plus's 402 miles. Range anxiety is a real thing.

Tesla Supercharger Network July 2021
Tesla Supercharger Network in July 2021. Image Credit: Tesla

Aside from Tesla's designated network of Supercharger stations across the continent, the EV-charging infrastructure leaves something to be desired—for now. (Of course, we're hoping for an EV-charging network like Norway's, where there are fast-charging stations every 31 miles or so along main roads).

"It's certainly hard to compete with the dependable availability of gas stations. But what you can rely on is never having to worry about roller-coaster gas prices."

A full charge in a regular outlet (yes, the same outlet that charges your phone) takes about 24 to 36 hours. Your daily route likely won't totally drain your battery, though, so an overnight top-up should be more than enough. And you have the option to install a faster charger, even possibly solar-powered, when preparing for an EV in your home.

When you do need a full charge on the go, a stop at a high-speed charging station is longer than filling a tank of gas, but it's not that long.

As podcast hosts of How to Save a Planet—both Tesla owners—point out in their episode Are Electric Cars Really Better for the Planet (give it a listen for an excellent should-I-buy-an-EV rundown), it's enough time for a bathroom and snack break. Twenty to 40 minutes later, you're back on the road. Easy peasy.

Finally, driving conditions matter. Are you a city driver or an open-roader? Unlike ICEVs, EVs have a longer range in stop-and-go conditions. So, you can feel at ease driving home at rush hour. (Not to mention when you're breezing past traffic in the carpool lane, where some states allow EVs regardless of the number of passengers.)  

But do note that if you live in a place where below-freezing temperatures are a regular part of life, cold weather cuts down EV range dramatically.

EV Sales

How Do I Know Which Electric Car I Should Buy?

The good news is you have lots to choose from. Are you a high-end luxury Jaguar I-Pace person? Or is a practical Nissan Leaf more your jam? Apart from personal style and expression, there's a lot to consider.

If you're feeling overwhelmed (paradox of choice!), let us point you to some handy tools. JD Power rates 2021 models (both premium and mass-market) on a scoring system that considers range, driving experience, the cost to operate, and other factors.

Carbon Counter Vehicle Graph
Carbon Counter Vehicle Graph. Image Credit: Carbon Counter

You can also play around with the Carbon Counter interactive tool, which helps consumers decide on a vehicle based on their needs (price, range, etc.) and the needs of the planet (total emissions from manufacturing to driving). 

Or take a look at UOCS's How Clean is Your Electric Vehicle tool. It takes your zip code and EV model and compares them to the emissions of a conventional gas vehicle.

Thankfully, EVs are not, on the whole, the exorbitantly priced space cars they used to be. On top of competitive pricing across different manufacturers, there are tax credits (in both the US and Canada) available for many models.

Also, consider that:

"EVs are less expensive to operate once you're driving them, thanks to lower maintenance and fuel costs."

So, do electric cars reduce our carbon footprint? If you're opting for a new EV over a new ICEV, then yes, they sure do. Is walking, biking or even public transport better? Well, yes, of course. But for those who aren't ready to give up their private ride, EVs are a big step (or, say, a long drive) in the right direction.

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Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-11-26T15:59:08+0000
Lauren Jerome

Article by:

Lauren Jerome

Lauren Jerome is a regular contributor to Goodside's Good News Blog about climate change. She's a writer, editor, and content planner covering a wide variety of topics – from personal finance and sustainable living to food, drink, and travel. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

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