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How ‘dirty’ are electric vehicles? The answer might surprise you

In this article, we take a look at the fact and fiction surrounding electric vehicles, and if they are truly as eco-friendly as some claim

Headlines and social media are filled with electric cars: the good, the bad, the controversial. However, one topic that remains elusive is the truth about how “green” electric vehicles really are. Here, we separate fact from fiction.

In order to truly consider the carbon impact of electric vs. gas cars, we need to look at their lifecycle emissions. This means cumulative emissions from production to operation to end-of-life. There are nuances to consider in each step along the way, so I’ll include considerations that may change the math as time goes on.

If you’re not interested in all the details, the short of it is this: electric cars become “greener” than their gasoline counterparts in around two years of normal use, regardless of how local electricity is generated. After this “break even” point, EVs will always be cleaner than a combustion engine because of the much higher fuel efficiency of electric motors.

Production and manufacturing: the bad news

Fact: Electric cars are more emissions-intensive to produce than gas cars

Fiction: Electric cars are not green because they are more emissions-intensive to produce

The mining, refining, and manufacturing stage is where EVs get a reputation for being more carbon intensive, and in fact, at this stage of their life, they are. The battery and its manufacturing process is responsible for 35% of lifetime EV emissions, whereas a gas car produces 75% of its emissions from use. Plus, there are ethical and environmental issues surrounding the sourcing of raw materials needed to make electric vehicle batteries, like cobalt and lithium. Battery production also uses 50% more water than manufacturing traditional combustion vehicles. 

Overall, making a new, electric sedan creates more than 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, compared to around 6 metric tons for a comparably sized gas sedan. So, when EVs are first put on the market, they are “in debt” so far as carbon accounting goes, and a gas car is technically a cleaner option. 

However, when you get to actually using the car, the math quickly changes. 

Considerations: As the electric vehicle market grows, so too do two key industries that will help decarbonize. The first is the growth of the used electric vehicle market, since second-hand EVs have already reached the stage of their life where they are cleaner. The second is battery recycling, which can recapture and reuse up to 95 percent of the minerals that would need to be mined and refined for a new battery. 

Finally, as more and more of the world turns to renewable energy, the emissions intensity of the manufacturing process will also decrease. 


Fact: Today, all-electric vehicles are not truly emissions-free, since the grid still produces emissions to generate electricity

Fiction: Dirty electricity generation negates the environmental benefit of EVs

A common criticism about EV terminology is that so-called “zero-emissions vehicles” (ZEVs) are not really zero emissions, since the electricity required to power them has an associated, upstream emission. The argument often talks about the additional coal power needed for electric cars – and everyone knows that coal is way worse than gasoline!

And while it’s true that non-renewable fuel still accounts for 80% of electricity production nationally, upstream emissions for an EV are about 1.3 metric tons a year, compared to 5.8 metric tons for an ICE. How is this possible? It comes down to the efficiency of an electric motor. Data from shows that in a combustion engine, 16-25% of the energy put into the car makes it to the wheels, while the other 75-84% is lost as heat. In an electric motor vehicle, 87-91% of the energy put into the car makes it to the wheels. That’s a huge difference. 

Even for the 21% (and falling) of the country that relies on coal to generate electricity, that power makes it much farther in an electric motor. Here’s another way to look at it. The Honda Civic, which has often been held as a highly efficient gas car, averages around 36 MPG. The Toyota Camry gets up to 39 MPG on the highway. The Tesla Model 3, fully electric but around the same size, gets the equivalent of 132 MPG. That’s over three times more efficient! And, there are at least 17 other EV models available in the U.S. that deliver fuel economy above 100 MPG equivalent.

Considerations: The lifetime emissions savings from an electric vehicle does depend on the local electricity generation. In regions and countries where the grid relies heavily on coal, the difference between a gas and electric car is not as pronounced. However, as the US moves towards renewable energy, the benefit of going electric will increase – as will the cost savings for drivers. This doesn’t even factor in the ability to fully power your car with home solar, for free.  

An Important Note about Zero Emissions

When people criticize the term zero-emissions vehicles, they do so because there are still atmospheric emissions associated with powering the vehicle. However, there is a great benefit from the fact that electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions. This past year, a major study across California showed notable air quality improvements in communities that had high EV adoption. Real world data shows that an additional 20 ZEVs per 1,000 people lowers the rate of asthma-related ER visits by 3.2%. Considering that ground-level air pollution contributes to at least 200,000 early deaths a year, tailpipe emissions are a topic that should not be ignored. 

End of life:

Fact: EV battery recycling is not where it needs to be yet

Fiction: The EV battery recycling industry won’t grow quickly

There are fears about EV batteries piling up in landfills as we shift to an increasingly disposable future. Luckily, electric car batteries are also lasting longer than anticipated, so are in high demand for storage and backup power. 

Although EV batteries are very recyclable, with up to 95% of lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper being recoverable and reusable, additional regulation and economies of scale are necessary to make it profitable. There is still time to build up battery recycling, and the Department of Energy is heavily investing in its growth. 

As of now, decommissioning an EV is a slightly more emissions intensive process than decommissioning an ICE car, largely due to not having infrastructure in place. However, multiple studies have shown that in both cases, the end-of-life emissions pale in comparison to those from production and operations. 

Moreover, provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act will incentivize manufacturers to recycle and recapture battery parts. Since tax credit eligibility for new cars requires that their batteries are sourced or recycled in North America, there is a built-in market to recycle and reuse battery materials and components.

Considerations: In 2021, the International Council on Clean Transportation found that “battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have by far the lowest life-cycle [greenhouse gas] emissions. Emissions over the lifetime of average medium-size BEVs registered today are already lower than comparable gasoline cars by 66%–69% in Europe, 60%–68% in the United States, 37%–45% in China, and 19%–34% in India.” 

Importantly, this study did not include any hypothetical projections about second-life battery use or the growth of the recycling industry. This means that as these two industries accelerate, as they already have in 2023, the lifetime emissions of EVs will be even more favorable. 

There’s a lot to love about electric cars, and a lot to be critical about. However, one thing is clear: they are the greener choice, and as EV adoption increases and the related industries grow, they will only become an even cleaner option. 

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Liz Najman
Liz Najman
Liz Najman is an atmospheric scientist and EV researcher with Recurrent. She publishes EV education and industry analysis, including Recurrent's Used Electric Car Prices & Market Report.

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