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Don’t get fooled: Electric vehicles really are better for the climate

Posted on 14 November 2022 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Daisy Simmons

A cartoon featuring rabbits (hares) in a gas pickup truck and tortoises in an electric car catching up to them.

You may have heard the myth that electric vehicles are just as bad for the climate — or worse — than gas-powered cars and trucks. One common myth claims that the climate-warming pollution caused by manufacturing electric vehicle batteries cancels out the benefits. Not so.

Electric vehicles don’t cause more pollution in the long run

Electric vehicles, often called EVs, are responsible for less global-warming pollution over their life cycle than gas-powered vehicles, despite the fact that battery manufacturing — for the moment — increases the climate impacts of EV production.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains the issue in a nutshell: “Some studies have shown that making a typical electric vehicle (EV) can create more carbon pollution than making a gasoline car. This is because of the additional energy required to manufacture an EV’s battery. Still, over the lifetime of the vehicle, total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with manufacturing, charging, and driving an EV are typically lower than the total GHGs associated with a gasoline car.” (emphasis added)

Let’s walk through the key data leading to this conclusion, with the help of the lead author of a 2022 Union of Concerned Scientists report evaluating the lifetime impacts of electric and gasoline vehicles.

Manufacturing an electric vehicle does cause carbon pollution

Although an electric vehicle creates less climate pollution over its life cycle than a gas-powered vehicle, manufacturing an EV typically generates more pollution.

That’s mostly a result of the energy required to mine the materials used in batteries, transport them to the production facility, and manufacture them.

“However, even now, those emissions are small compared to the savings when you’re driving the vehicle,” said David Reichmuth, senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the 2022 report cited above.

Electric vehicle advantage: pollution ‘debt’ settled after about 22 months

Most of a vehicle’s emissions occur during the portion of its life when it is driven. And electric vehicles deliver a benefit no gas-powered car can: They eliminate tailpipe emissions. That goes a long way in improving air quality and climate goals.

The amount of climate pollution generated by driving an EV depends on the mix of electricity available in the region where it’s used. For example, if EV drivers live in an area where most grid power is supplied by fossil fuels, then charging up will have a bigger climate footprint than in places where most energy comes from wind and solar.

Still, Reichmuth said that driving using electricity is cleaner than gasoline even with the current electricity mix in the United States. And his research shows that as more renewables have come online in recent years, EV charging has been getting cleaner.

In 2012, only 46% of U.S. residents lived in a place where driving an average EV created less climate pollution than the most fuel-efficient gasoline car, which then was a Prius.

Today, no matter where you live, driving an average EV results in lower emissions than driving an average gas-powered car. And over 90% of the U.S. population now lives in places where driving an average all-electric vehicle produces fewer emissions than even the most efficient hybrid-gas vehicle — Hyundai’s Ioniq Blue.

Bottom line: Reichmuth’s team compared an average gas-powered sedan (32 miles per gallon) with an average-efficiency EV (300-mile-range battery) and found that the EV reduces total lifetime emissions by 52%.

“You can also think of it as the manufacturing emissions being a deficit or debt that is sort of ‘paid back’ by emissions savings,” Reichmuth said.

For the average driver — one who drives about 10,650 miles a year — “there’s a net climate benefit as long as that car’s on the road for two years,” Reichmuth said. “And most of these cars are being driven 10 to 15 years, so it really is a net benefit.”

Read: Electrifying transportation reduces emissions AND saves massive amounts of energy

More clean power and innovation are likely to cut pollution from electric vehicle manufacturing

In the future, adding more renewables to the power mix and continuing to make other technological advances are likely to help reduce the climate impacts of EV manufacturing.

“Some of those manufacturing emissions will be helped as we both clean up the grid and clean up transportation,” he said.

Reichmuth’s research looked at what would happen if car manufacturers switch to using renewable energy at their factories. “If you’re using 100% carbon-free electricity in battery manufacturing,” he said, “it would reduce battery emissions by 27%.”

Some emissions result from transporting materials from the point of extraction to production facilities, so electrifying the industrial trucking sector would also help improve manufacturing’s climate footprint.

Verdict: electric cars are already better for the climate than gas-fueled vehicles — but there’s room for improvement.

?The transportation sector accounts for about 27% of total U.S. climate-warming pollution, making it the largest contributor to the nation’s emissions. Cleaning up passenger cars is therefore vital to addressing climate change.

Electric cars are already doing exactly that.

“It’s clear from my research and other people’s research that the average EV represents a significant emissions reduction — even when you consider battery manufacture,” said Reichmuth. “We do need to reduce the emissions from manufacturing, just as we need to reduce the emissions from driving overall.”

“But overall, if we’re trying to figure out how to maintain the mobility that we have without adding to global warming emissions already changing our climate,” he said, “it’s clear that switching from gasoline to an electric motor is part of that solution.”

Got other questions about electric vehicles? Drop us a line at editor@yaleclimateconnections.org.

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 14:

  1. For those of us driving EV's in Minnesota there is an added benefit. My understanding is that most of our gasoline comes from the Alberta Tar Sands (read here). Hence, driving an EV in Minnesota not only eliminates GHG emissions while driving the car, but prevents all of the environmental and GHG-emissions issues associated with burning gasoline extracted from tar sands.

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  2. I'm not finding an Ice machine (internal conbustion) that can replace my Ford Ranger, 2006; at my age, it makes no sense to change, other than climate's moral imperative, which is a steep price to pay for a guy in his last decade. So I figure that other baby boomers in my shoes feel the same way, and we're in a small minority by the looks of it. Had Musk kept to his word and come out with the Cybertruck at the presented price for one motor, I would have taken the leap in the beginning. Now it's out of reach and not even available.

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  3. EddieEvans,

    It is not clear what you are talking about.

    "I'm not finding an Ice machine (internal conbustion) that can replace my Ford Ranger, 2006".

    2023 Ford Ranger (ICE) models appear to be available.

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  4. The issue with EV's is lithium strip mining for one, the fact that they need coal burning power plants to charge, there is no infrastructure, the batteries are too expensive, the vehicles do not charge efficiently in the home at all, the list goes on. I care about clean air and clean water, that is why I like emissions to be controlled...not based on some fantasy that C02 is the boogey man that will sink the Titanic. The initial !PCC report in 1990 was an absolute political lie...not one time did we get even near the median or high predicted temperature in the next 30 years, only once in 1996 did we spike momentarily into the low mean average predicted temperature, so 99.9% of the "science" was either a bald face lie, or the PhD who published it is an absolute failure at science, as his predictions were fantasy. Anyone care to start by discussing the first IPCC report of 1990? Then we can step through to now?

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Comments policy violations. (accusations of deception, politics, offtopic, sloganeering) .

  5. Michael Tomas-Musatin @4,

    There is more to understand about every point you are trying to make. And the increased awareness and understanding makes a significant difference.

    As an example: "the fact that they need coal burning power plants to charge" is missing the following understanding presented by Forbes in 2018 (read here) comparing ICE vehicle use to the emissions from charging an EV. The poorest regions in the USA at the time had the EV impacts equivalent to a 35 mpg ICE vehicle (Hawaii, except Kona at 49 mpg) and 38 mpg (small MROE region west of Lake Michigan). The USA average at the time was 80 mpg.

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  6. Eddie, it is a pain that technology and price points arent moving faster but for some there can be reasonable compromises. If you need the capabilities of Ranger on daily basis (eg you are farmer or contractor), then you need it and not much choice. But you may be able to use alternatives when those capabilities not needed. eg have very small car or an electric as second "go-to-town" vehicle. Other people buy Rangers for towing boat or caravan and in those situations, it can be far cheaper to own a small vehicle for daily use and hire when needed, than to take on cost of ownership (wtih depreciation) of something like a Ranger.

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  7. Michael Tomsa-Musatin

    "The initial !PCC report in 1990 was an absolute political lie...not one time did we get even near the median or high predicted temperature in the next 30 years, only once in 1996 did we spike momentarily into the low mean average predicted temperature,..."

    The 1990 IPCC report was more accurate than you think. The report stated: "Based on current model results, we predict: under the IPC C Business-as-Usual (Scenario A ) emissions of greenhouse gases, a rate of increase of global-mean temperature during the next century of about 0.3°C per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2°C to 0.5°C per decade); this is greater than that seen over the past 10,000 years. This will result in a likely increase in global-mean temperature of about 1°C above the present value by 2025 and 3°C before the end of the next century. The rise will not be steady because of the influence of other factors;"

    www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/05/ipcc_90_92_assessments_far_wg_I_spm.pdf

    The prediction was 0.3 degrees per decade. Last 30 years has been 0.2 degrees c per decade. The 1990 IPCC report did state quite large uncertainty bars per decade (0.2 - 0.5). Taking those into account the 1990 IPPC projections have proven accurate enough.

    Warming was predicted to be "likely" 1 degree c from 1990 - 2025. From 1990 - 2022 it has been 0.75 degress c (NASA GISS). We are not yet at 2025, but it looks like we are getting fairly close to the model prediction of 1 degree. Remember the models stated the rise would not be steady. And there were error bars. 

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] This topic https://skepticalscience.com/lessons-from-past-climate-predictions-ipcc-far.html is where any discussion of IPCC FAR should take place. Michael covered nothing ontopic so no further discussion here please. Graphs badly in need of update, but further graphs available at https://www.realclimate.org/index.php/climate-model-projections-compared-to-observations/

  8. I am sorry for yesterday's confusing post: "I'm not finding an Ice machine (internal combustion) that can replace my Ford Ranger, 2006." I should have written, "EV to replace my ICE machine." There is no pickup EVs to buy; the Ford pickup EV will not be available for years because of demand. The Cybertruck will cost too much, even if it does become available. Fortunately, I don't need to drive every day, unlike other people that would buy an EV pickup but cannot find one. The market let conscientious consumers down as well as the planet.

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  9. EV are better than ICE cars but even better would be to reduce the need to for personal vehicles.  Building more & better public transit ( electrified, of course! ) within and between cities would reduce the strain on the environment caused by mineral extraction as well as accelerate the transition to a low-carbon transportation system.

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  10. EddieEavans,

    Thanks for clarifying. I just wanted to be sure you weren't encountering a lack of ability to find a specific performance feature because the product development focus had shifted away from ICE to EV.

    I agree with scaddenp's comment (they correctly sensed what your issue was). I would add that I support the limiting of the use to necessary uses (something that also aligns with JavaTom's comment)

    I am also likely to delay buying a new vehicle because so many now have very expensive front windshield replacement costs. I bought a hybrid a while ago without the fancy windshield mounted stuff that is now 'standard features'. I bought the hybrid rather than an EV because I live in Alberta, a region that had, at the time, a high emissions electricity generation system (lots of coal burning).

    Alberta's grid has improved since I bought my hybrid. But Alberta still has some coal generation as base-power and a lot of natural gas generation. So, I am pretty sure that burning gasoline in my hybrid (I get 50 to 60 mpg) still produces a little less emissions than an EV plugged into the Alberta grid.

    However, the Alberta grid emissions should be significantly better by 2030 (no more coal burning and a significant increase of wind and solar by then).

    In spite of an EV in Alberta likely being better after 2030, I may see if my hybrid can run for a very long time (30 or more years). Being driven as little as possible should help it last longer. And a nice thing about a hybrid is that reduced battery capacity should not seriously affect the performance.

    So, if you 'need' a replacement truck soon, you may want to look into getting a hybrid truck (note: the extra cost compared to a new ICE will be recovered through less being spent for fuel).

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  11. This caught my attention the other day:

    "Long charging times are one of the biggest headaches for electric vehicle (EV) owners today, ranging anywhere from 10 hours with a home charger to roughly 30 minutes with a high-powered public one."

    "However, a new paper from the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) suggests that quantum technology could allow future EV owners to be able to charge their cars in just three minutes, according to a press release from the organization. That’d put it at roughly the same speed as filling up a car with a tank of gas — an extraordinary jump toward mass adoption and away from range anxiety."

    futurism.com/the-byte/quantum-charge-electric-cars

    "How quantum batteries could lead to EVs that go a million miles between charges"

     

    thenextweb.com/news/how-quantum-batteries-could-lead-to-evs-that-go-a-million-miles-between-charges

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  12. Per Eddie's remarks, we have an EV that does the vast bulk of our mileage. It can handle dimensional items up to 118" (~3m) with the hatch closed and can comfortably do a 190 mile (305km) roundtrip I routinely need to cover, in winter, mostly at 70mph (112kph) and without the driver freezing, w/~40 miles (64km) reserve range on returning to driveway. And it's a delight to drive, makes me feel a little bit too much like I'm 16 years of age again. So lots of bullet points covered there.

    For other needs we have a 1997 Ford Ranger. It goes through about 40 gallons of gas per year, at about 25MPG (10km/l) for above trip case. I've not done the math, but I suspect the current embodied carbon in replacing it with the most plausible EPU candidate (Ford F150 Lightning) may be problematic; the choice would not necessarily be a win over the geriatric Ranger. 

    There are two other problems. 

    For us, $40k is not a dealbreaker. But as a practical matter and in the context where a lot of PUs are used (think solo operators running a yard care concern, etc.) that's a huge lift, essentially impossible.

    But here's another dealbreaker: none of the current EPUs will hold a 6' (1.8m) dimensional item in the bed with the gate closed, the lowest bar of legitimate PU cargo specs*. All of them are centered as designer accessories first, tool second. This is like having to use a tack hammer where one needs a framing hammer, or (given the toy-like nature of such an implementation) a kid's plastic hammer instead of the real deal. And that's a shame, because for the legitimate use case of many PUs, EPUs otherwise offer distinct advantages, and have range more than ample for a typical day's work.

    Eventually this will get sorted and we'll probably even see -proper- EPU models with what used to be the correct treatment: an 8' (2.4m) bed. But right now, conflicted objectives, still catering to urban cowboys having PUs with no scratches or dirt in the bed. A lot of cost and a lot of dead weight are concentrated on useless appurtenances, things that are completely irrelevant to the original use case of PUs, hardware as psychological reassurance, ending up with the worst possible analogy to designer handbag. 

    All that said, the more EVs, the better for the planet, with the stipulation that fewer vehicle miles of all kinds are also going to be necessary. We're habituated to automobiles, but in truth if we can't feed or house ourselves with jumping into a car, our "convenience" item is substantially a prosthetic device, a very large and inefficient wheel chair. 

    *"just leave the gate open" isn't responsive to how that actually unpacks in practice. As usual, "just" is way too economical.

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  13. Not sure about that … tire pollution is significantly worse with EVs & gains are modest.
    EVs will never deliver the sort of transport reductions needed.

    https://www.emissionsanalytics.com/news/gaining-traction-losing-tread
    https://theecologist.org/2020/oct/05/unsustainability-electric-car

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL] Links activated.

    The web software here does not automatically create links. You can do this when posting a comment by selecting the "insert" tab, selecting the text you want to use for the link, and clicking on the icon that looks like a chain link. Add the URL in the dialog box.

    Also note that "link only" comments are discouraged by the Comments Policy. You should be providing additional information on what you expect readers to see at the link, and how it relates to the discussion.

     

  14. PSBaker:

    Your first link does not make any references at all to "carbon pollution" (e.g. CO2 emissions to the atmosphere). It discusses only particulate emissions. And it does not say that EVs are worse - it says that heavier vehicles (of any type) are worse. And it points out that one of the reasons tires are now more important is because particulate emissions from the tailpipe are now much less than they used to be. And it points out that much of the tire wear particulate matter does not become airborne (where it would affect air quality).

    It makes mention of the extra weight of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), but driving style is far more of an impact. Quoting the article:

    Nevertheless, it is important to say that a gentle BEV driver, with the benefit of regenerative braking, can more than cancel out the tire wear emissions from the additional weight of their vehicle, to achieve lower tire wear than an internal combustion engine vehicle driven badly.

    So, your article looks at only one small component of EV use.

    As for your second article: what is your point? Quoting from the article:

    The results show that the scenario with a high concentration of electric vehicles (‘EV-high’), which bets on wide-scale electrification but does not change our current mobility patterns only manages to reduce by 15 percent the greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 2050.

    So, EVs do reduce greenhouse gas emissions - but many other actions are needed to meet our goals.

    Neither of your sources seem to provide any sort of "EVs are a waste of effort" that your extremely brief comment seems to want to imply. And the certainly do not refute the main point of the blog post.

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