The Union of Concerned Scientists, known as UCS, on July 25 published a study that finds the total lifetime emissions from an electric vehicle are 50% less than those from a comparable vehicle equipped with a gasoline or diesel engine. “Over its lifetime — from manufacturing to operation to disposal — the average new battery electric vehicle produces more than 50 percent less global warming pollution than a comparable gasoline or diesel vehicle. Based on the most recently available data on power plant emissions and EV sales, driving the average EV in the United States produces global warming emissions equal to a gasoline vehicle that gets 91 miles per gallon” (emphasis added).
Explaining The Calculations
To assess the total global warming emissions from charging electric vehicles, the UCS study addressed all contributions from electricity production. These include:
- Emissions that result from raw-material extraction, such as coal mining and natural gas drilling
- Emissions from delivering these fuels to power plants
- Emissions from burning those fuels in power plants to generate electricity
- Electricity losses that occur during distribution from power plants to the point where the electric vehicle is plugged in
- The efficiency of the vehicle in recharging and using electricity
The assessment of the global warming emissions from gasoline and diesel vehicles includes emissions that result from:
- Oil extraction at the well
- Transporting crude oil to refineries
- Refining oil into gasoline
- Delivering fuel to gas stations
- Combusting fuel in the vehicle’s engine
Regional Emissions Vary
It’s not really a surprise that total EV emissions are a function of the emissions generated when electricity is generated. If the majority of local electricity comes from coal-fired generating plants, total emissions will be higher than if the electricity comes from renewable sources. Recognizing that, UCS has included a handy map that shows average emissions from electricity generation in various parts of the US. But here’s the point. Even in regions with the worst emissions — like Ohio and West Virginia — driving an electric vehicle still results in lower total than emissions driving a conventional vehicle. See the map above.
Everywhere in the United States, driving the average EV results in lower emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle, UCS says.
- Over 90% of people in the United States live in regions where driving the average EV produces lower emissions than the most efficient gasoline vehicle on the market today, which is 59 miles per gallon. (Note: there are precious few of such vehicles on the road in America.)
- Driving the average EV in the United States produces global warming emissions equivalent to those emitted by a gasoline car getting 91 miles per gallon.
- Driving the most efficient EV produces lower emissions than the most efficient gasoline car where 97% of the population lives — in other words, virtually everywhere in the United States.
- Everywhere in the United States, the emissions from driving an EV pickup truck are lower than those for the average new gasoline or diesel pickup truck.
The more efficient an EV is, the greater the benefits of switching from gasoline to electricity, according to UCS. For example, the emissions from driving a 2021 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus in California equal those of a gasoline car getting 152 miles per gallon. The Tesla’s global warming emissions are a fifth of those of the average new gasoline car and over 60 percent less than even the most efficient gasoline car on the market.
What About Manufacturing?
Driving an EV is one thing, but what about manufacturing one? Doesn’t that involve a lot of emissions? UCS considered that, too. It acknowledges that manufacturing an EV results in more global warming emissions than manufacturing a comparable gasoline vehicle, primarily because of the energy and materials need to produce an EV battery. However, most of the global warming emissions over the lifespan of a vehicle occur during its use, so the reductions from driving an EV more than offset the higher manufacturing emissions.
When comparing the average gasoline sedan (32 mpg) to the average-efficiency EV with a 300-mile-range battery, UCS found the EV reduces total lifetime emissions 52%. An EV pickup truck reduces lifetime emissions 57% compared with the average gasoline pickup.
The breakeven point is how far an EV needs to drive for the savings to match the initial emissions “debt” created during the manufacturing process. This breakeven point varies depending on the emissions associated with each regional electricity grid. Based on where the US population lives, the mean breakeven point for an electric car with a 300-mile range compared with the average new gasoline sedan is 21,300 miles of driving, or 22 months based on average annual driving. Breakeven occurs more quickly, after about 17,500 miles (17 months), when comparing an electric truck (300-mile range) with the average new gasoline pickup truck. See the featured graphic above.
Raw Materials & Recycling
Many industry observers agree that a shortage of essential raw materials is looming. There just isn’t enough lithium, nickel, cobalt, and silicon to build as many electric vehicles as gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. In 2021, just under 80 million cars and trucks were produced, most of them equipped with internal combustion engines. But while supply issues are a concern, new technologies are emerging that can limit their incision.
Battery recycling is ramping up, which can recover up to 95% of the raw materials contained inside today’s batteries. Other technologies are substituting more abundant materials such as iron and sodium for lithium, nickel, and other elements.
Keep in mind that the electric car age is just over a decade old. The internal combustion engine took over a century to perfect. Development of batteries and EV manufacturing is just getting started. The electric vehicles of 2030 will likely contain large percentages of reclaimed materials and new technologies that are just now being perfected in laboratories all around the world.
The UCS sums it up this way.”Switching from conventional vehicles to electric vehicles reduces carbon emissions and smog forming air pollution. To maximize these reductions, we must accelerate the adoption of EVs and transition to renewable electricity as quickly as possible. These dual transitions are a necessary part of putting the United States on a trajectory toward net-zero climate emissions by mid-century.”
That will involve putting the right policy incentives in place to promote electric vehicle manufacturing and adoption, just as government incentives helped conventional automakers succeed over the past 100 years. (Government may be the problem, but oil depletion allowances and the interstate highway system both helped sell a lot of cars.)
“Vehicle incentives and infrastructure deployment should enable drivers across incomes and geographies to access EVs. To maximize the benefits of EVs, all drivers should be able to switch from gasoline and diesel vehicles,” UCS says. Amen to that.
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