When it comes to sustainability, it can be difficult to find information that is accurate and easy to understand. Further, it can be difficult to find information that applies to you.
For example, you may read an article that shows how you use more water from washing dishes by hand, rather than using a dishwasher.
While this is mostly true, it may not be true for you.
You have unique living conditions and a unique lifestyle. You may have a higher water consuming sink than someone else, set the water flow rate differently than someone else, cook messier meals, and so on.
This makes it almost impossible to know what the best option is for you without knowing more about your unique conditions.
Cars are no different. In fact, the impact of a car may be one of the most lifestyle based sustainability choice I know of.
In this article, I’ll break down the impact of cars in such a way so that you can figure out which option is best for you; an electric vehicle or a gas vehicle.
I’m going to compare the impact to making and driving an electric vehicles with the impact of a gas vehicle. I’ll make the comparison in terms of climate change as well as other important impacts of electric and gas vehicles. I also show you how to figure out which option is best for you. Since climate change is one of the biggest motivators for the use of electric vehicles, let’s start there.
Emissions From Making Electric Cars vs gas cars
The climate impact of making and driving electric cars depends heavily on where they are made and where they are used, so the best option for you, may not be the best for someone else.
The impact of making the body or glider of electric cars and gas are nearly the same at about 4k kg co2e each. The powertrain, or the parts that make the vehicle move forward are a bit different because some of the parts needed in electric vehicles have a bigger impact. The powertrain on gas cars generates about 1k kg of co2e and for an EV about 2.5k kg .
So the impact to make a gas car is about 5k kg co2e, but for an electric car we still need to factor in the battery, which is one of the most impactful parts of making an electric car. The exact amount changes a bit based on the type of battery that is being created, although usually not by too much. Rather, a much more influential impact on battery manufacturing is where a battery is manufactured . This is because much of the impact to create the battery comes from the electricity use at the manufacturing location. Since many batteries are made in China, where coal use is high, the impact of manufacturing a battery is high as well.
As you can see below, the electric grid in the US is much cleaner than that of Chinas because it uses less coal and more renewables and natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal [3,4].
So just by manufacturing batteries in the US instead of China lowers the impact of battery manufacturing by about 2-3 times, all without changing anything about the materials used to make the car or how the car is manufactured. Different studies show different results, but the impact of manufacturing each kWh of battery capacity creates about 30-500 kg co2e, depending on where its manufactured .
So this means cars with bigger battery capacity will have a larger impact. It also means if you know where any battery was made and the size of that battery, you can figure out its impact. To do so, simply take the value from this chart for the country the battery was made and multiply it by the size of the battery. So for example, to figure out the impact to create a battery for the Tesla model 3 in the US that has a 52 kWh capacity, we simply take this value for producing a single kWh of capacity in the US and multiply it by the 52 kWh capacity, which is about 1,560 kg CO2e. Now that we know the impact of the battery, we can then go back and add that onto the glider and powertrain to find the total. You can do this with any model of electric car to see what the impact is to make that particular model.
If we apply this idea to the data shown in these tables, we can find the range of carbon emissions electric vehicles made anywhere in the world will have. Roughly, the amount of carbon emissions to create vehicles made around the world is as low as about 7100 kg to nearly 65,000 for electric cars, with the average in the US about 9,000kg, the average in Europe around 10,000, and average in China around 13500.
Emission From Driving Electric Cars Vs Gas Cars
So far we’ve only covered the impact to make each car. In order for electric cars to be the better option in terms of climate change, EV’s need to be powered by sources of energy that produce much less emissions during their actual use compared to gasoline to make up for their higher production emissions.
Starting with gasoline, we can go through some quick math to figure out the amount of emissions that are produced per mile when driving a gas car. To keep it simple, gas cars each use gas with different fuel efficiencies, usually measure in gallons per mile. If you know the fuel efficiency, you can figure out the amount of carbon emissions that will be produced each mile by dividing 8887 by the fuel efficiency . The avenge gas car gets emits about 342g of emissions per mile .
So, in order for electric cars to be the better option, they need to be powered by sources of electricity that emit less than this amount per mile.
The electricity used in electric cars can be generated by fossil fuels, which leads many people to think electric cars are dirtier than gas cars. However, even if a car and a power plant used the same fuels, such as gasoline, a power plant is much more efficient at turning fuel into power and it’s easier to control emissions from a single source rather than multiple sources. In addition, certain fossil fuels used in power plants such as natural gas burn cleaner than gasoline.
Electricity can also be generated from completely emission free sources as well. Even if you account for the emissions to produce renewable energy systems, they still produce much less emissions per mile than any fossil fuel option. The emissions to generate a single kWh of electricity from wind power is about 9kgCo2 and the emissions for solar power is about 65 kg co2. Compare that with natural gas at 490kg and coal at 820kg .
We can again do some quick math to see what these numbers mean in terms of emissions per mile. As you can see, the impact of each mile driven in an electric vehicle is better than that of a gas vehicle, no matter the fuel source. This means, the cleaner the source of your electricity and the further you drive, the faster an electric vehicle will become the better option and make up for its high manufacturing impact. Using all this information, we can actually plot the exact point electric vehicles become the better option.
Wherever you see two lines cross it means the vehicle associated with the now lower line has become the better option at that exact point. So for example, this means an electric car made in the US that was charged with wind power will have produced less overall emissions than a gas at about 12,000 miles, including the emissions from manufacturing both cars. At the other end, we can see that even if your car is powered by coal, this “break-even” point occurs at about 45,000 miles if it was made in the US. If your car was made in China, 25,000 miles is pretty much the each point at which a car powered by electricity generated from wind power becomes the better option And it wouldn’t be until about 167,000 mile if your car was made in China and powered by coal that it would become the better option. These are all just possibilities, you would need to figure out where you fall in this range based on where you live, the car you drive, and how much you drive.
Todays cars will drive at least 150,000 miles in their lifetime, so its expected that the average electric car in most countries on the road today will have a lower climate impact than gas cars, since most places are not completely coal powered. It’s estimated that 95% of the world would lower its emissions by using electric cars, without using any extra renewables . If you don’t know exactly which sources your electricity comes from check below for tools.
Of course, if your area is powered more by renewables, such as solar power, the “break-even” point will occur sooner.
Whether you have an EV or not, solar can help reduce fossil fuel usage and save money. To learn more about going solar, check out EnergySage. There, you’ll find licensed, insured, and vetted solar installers in your area. Its 100% online and free!
NON-CLIMATE IMPACTS – ELECTRIC VEHICLES VS GAS VEHICLES
Of course, there are many other impacts EV’s have, for example impacts on water, eco toxicity, and creation of air pollutants. Many people don’t consider these other points, but they are important because if we are going to use EV’s as a potential solution to climate change and improve the environment, we want to make sure we aren’t creating other significant environmental impacts and shifting the problem from one major problem to another.
Much of these impacts are heavily influenced by using cleaner energy sources to manufacture electric vehicles and drive them, which means they often follow a similar trend to climate change. In fact, these other impact areas are so dependent on how clean energy systems are that we can group them into three categories. Those where EV’s are already better than gas cars no matter which energy source was used to make or drive the car, those where EV’s could be better depending on the energy sources used, and those where EV’s will need some overall improvements before they are equal to or better than gas cars.
Climate change, ozone depletion, photochemical oxidant formation, fossil fuel depletion, natural land use – already better regardless of energy use in nearly all cases. Particulate matter formation, marine eutrophication, terrestrial acidification – are impacts where electric vehicles could be less impactful than gas vehicles with clean enough electricity use in battery production and driving electricity. Freshwater eutrophication, marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecotoxicity, human toxicity, ionizing radiation, mineral depletion, agricultural land use, urban land use, and water depletion – are impacts where even with 100% renewable energy use for battery manufacturing and for driving, improvements will still be needed for electric vehicles to be similar to or better than gas cars.
Now this may sound like a lot of bad indicators, so I’ll spend a bit of time on them, but overall, regardless of these impacts, studies still show that thousands of human lives would be saved and medical costs would be significantly reduced as a result of cleaner transportation as a result of using EVs, even without doing anything to make them less impactful than they are today.
Metal use and mineral depletion is a topic that gets a lot of attention when it comes to electric vehicles and e-waste in general. Metals are used to make batteries and there is concern that we won’t have enough metals for all our future needs and that their impact has negative social and environmental impacts. While these concerns are valid, battery technology is always changing and it’s possible to substitute metals that are scarce and controversial now with metals that are more abundant and mined with safer practices. Much research on electric vehicles shows how quickly battery technology is changing. In addition, if you buy an EV today you will likely not need another battery for about 8-10 years, maybe even more. This means by the time you need a new battery there could be entirely new battery technology and supply chains. In addition, the electric vehicle tax credit passed in the US in 2022 made it so that to qualify for the tax credit, the electric vehicle in question must have components made in North America or countries with a fair trade agreement with the US. This move eliminates many parts of the world with controversial mining problems and dirty electric grids.
Much of the toxicity indicators are worse for gas cars because they use more metals. Metals are found within rock. Much processing is needed to get the metals out of the rock, this processing is usually powered by dirtier sources of energy. In addition, all of the unused materials left over once metals are extracted and put back into the environment. However, since they have been crushed and processed, the other minerals within them are more available. This makes it much easier to pollute water ways through rain run off and cause unwanted plant growth and algae blooms known as eutrophication. So, by creating better mining practices such as preventing waste and monitoring nutrient runoff, these impacts can be greatly lowered. Countries such as those in the US and Europe typically have higher pollution monitoring and prevention laws, so this could be another reason to buy cars made in those areas.
Check out my other articles next if you want to learn more about how EV’s compare to gas cars in terms of total costs, driving range, driverless features, and so on. You can also check out my article on the electric vehicle tax credit to see how you can save thousands on an electric vehicle.
If you’d like to see a tool you could use to figure out the impact of any car, as well as get help calculating the best option for you, check out our app Biome. There, you’ll also find many of our other tools and calculators to figure out the best option for you, as well as see sustainability quotes and tips.
 – Average Fuel Economy
 – Emissions per kWh for Energy Sources
 – Most of the World Would Benefit from Switching to EV’s
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