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Are electric cars better for the environment? The real truth

Environmentally conscious car shoppers often wonder, “Are electric cars better for the environment?” It’s true that operating an electric vehicle is significantly less harmful to the environment than operating its gasoline-powered counterpart. EVs do not create harmful carbon emissions that affect our health and contribute to the greenhouse effect, while gas-powered cars do. So it seems obvious that electric cars are definitely better for the environment, right? Well, that’s not the whole story.

The problem is that the operation of an electric vehicle is only one factor in the equation necessary to assess its environmental impact. To know the entire story, we also need to take into account the carbon emitted during the EV manufacturing process as well as during the generation of the power that the EV will eventually use. These are not static factors, and thankfully they tend to decrease as technology progresses: Manufacturers implement measures to achieve carbon neutrality, and utilities replace coal with sustainable power sources, creating greener power grids. 

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Power doesn’t have to be a dirty word

The environmental impact of the electricity used to power EVs depends on the amount of coal burned in its generation. For example, a Nissan Leaf will account for more than double the amount of CO2 per mile (170 grams) if used in West Virginia than if used in Maine (60 grams). That’s because, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in West Virginia, coal-fired electric power plants accounted for “almost all” of the state’s electricity net generation in 2020. In Maine, there are no coal-burning plants generating power, and in 2020 “79 percent of in-state electricity net generation came from renewable resources.”

The good news, according to the New York Times, is that “in the United States, utilities have retired hundreds of coal plants over the last decade and shifted to a mix of lower-emissions natural gas, wind and solar power,” making the operation of electric vehicles even cleaner. To help you figure out how much carbon is associated with operating your dream EV in the area where you live, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy have created an online resource aptly named the Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator

Manufacturing batteries for EVs is still a work in progress

Manufacturing EVs generates a significantly larger amount of greenhouse gases than building gasoline-powered vehicles. All of the carbon surplus in EV manufacturing is attributed to the battery production. 

According to Volvo, for example, “the accumulated emissions from the materials production and refining, Li-ion battery modules and Volvo Cars manufacturing phases of C40 Recharge [their newest EV] are nearly 70 percent higher than for XC40 ICE [the same vehicle with an internal combustion engine].” But, eventually, there will be a moment during the life of the vehicle in which its clean operation will offset the excess emissions created during its production, thus achieving a negative carbon footprint. This is something that a gas-powered vehicle will never be able to do.

Volvo’s current strategy — to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases created during the materials production and refining phase by 25% by 2025 — is based largely on recycling. This strategy coincides with a study conducted for the American Chemical Society that indicates that materials from discarded batteries could supply a significant amount of the cobalt, lithium, and nickel needed for the manufacturing of new batteries by 2040. Based on the same strategy, Volvo expects to achieve total carbon neutrality in its manufacturing operations by 2040.

The mining of the raw materials used to manufacture batteries, mainly lithium and cobalt, also presents a whole different set of important environmental and human rights challenges that need to be addressed by the manufacturers. 

The bottom line

There is no arguing with the fact that EVs are better for the environment than cars equipped with internal combustion engines. However, the fact that they produce zero emissions only in their operation, not in their production — an industrial process that involves polluting carbon emissions — means that they are not completely innocuous for the environment, at least not yet.

However, despite the fact that the manufacturing of EVs is significantly more carbon-intensive than the production of gas-powered cars, the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle will diminish over time with its use, and may eventually be completely offset if the vehicle is driven enough miles. This is exactly the opposite of what happens with our current internal combustion-engine vehicles, which can only rack up debt to the planet, with no way to pay back that debt.

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