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The effects of climate change are all around us, and lowering carbon emissions is one way to help protect the planet. In that mission, how we get from point “A” to point “B” makes a significant carbon impact.
Transportation produced more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector in the U.S. in 2021, according to the EPA. It accounts for 29% of total U.S. GHS emissions, and 58% come from light-duty vehicles like passenger cars.
Trading in your gas-powered car for an electric vehicle (EV) seems like a simple sustainable solution. But does the carbon footprint from manufacturing EVs outweigh the zero-tailpipe emissions benefit? And do EVs cost too much?
Weighing the Carbon Footprint of Manufacturing EVs
Vehicles that run on an internal combustion gas-powered engine generate harmful carbon emissions. By comparison, all-electric vehicles (EVs) produce zero tailpipe emissions. However, manufacturing EVs creates a carbon footprint.
Reuters analyzed data in an Argonne National Library model to determine at what point in its lifecycle an EV is cleaner for the climate than a comparable gas-powered car. The model also considers an EV’s charging power source. If power comes from a fossil fuel-driven power plant, charging the vehicle also produces carbon emissions. However, EVs eventually break even on CO2 emissions after so many miles on the road.
Comparing EV Charging Power Sources
For example, Reuter’s data analysis showed a Tesla Model 3 in the U.S. that charges from a fossil fuel power plant must travel 13,500 miles before it harms the environment less than a gas-powered Toyota Corolla. Using a hydroelectric charging power source, the Tesla’s break-even point drops to 8,400 miles.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) also accounts for these power source EV emissions. The AFDC used the Argonne model to develop an online program that calculates annual CO2 emissions for all-electric, plug-in hybrid, hybrid, and gas-powered vehicles by charging power sources in each state. Consumers can get carbon estimates in their state before buying an EV with the program.
Research group IHS Markit did a similar lifecycle assessment of EVs versus ICE vehicles. Global Director of Carbon Dioxide Compliance for IHS Markit Vijay Subramanian told Reuters that the “well-to-wheel” study showed “the typical break-even point in carbon emissions for EVs was about 15,000 to 20,000 miles, depending on the country.”
In this case, switching from gas-powered vehicles to EVs shows long-term benefits, according to Subramanian.
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What About EV Battery Production?
Producing EV batteries raises another sustainable question. Mining for lithium and cobalt to make EV batteries is not environmentally friendly, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Mining lithium requires vast amounts of groundwater, and the process is done in one of the driest regions in the world, “in Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile,” where indigenous farmers must compete for water to grow crops.
EV batteries also contain cobalt, and children work in dangerous conditions in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The excavation dust “may contain toxic metals including uranium that are linked to health problems such as respiration diseases and birth defects,” according to the UNCTAD report. Many worry that these environmental issues will also increase as EV battery demand increases.
The EPA Weighs In
Despite manufacturing and battery production concerns, the EPA maintains that GHGs across an EV’s lifetime “are typically lower than those from an average gasoline-powered vehicle, even when accounting for manufacturing.”
Recycling EV batteries can offset the need for excavating future new materials, and researchers continue to look for ways to improve EV recycling rates, according to the EPA.
Do EVs Cost Too Much?
EVs have a higher sticker price than gas-powered cars. Car buyers may balk at this — especially those who can’t afford the price or a potential payment hike.
Many EVs are in luxury categories, with new vehicle prices over $61,000, according to Consumer Reports. Hybrid vehicles (that offer a mix of battery and fuel power) like the Chevy Bolt range from $26,500 – $29,700, according to a 2023 Consumer Reports EV overview.
The report also names a possible federal tax credit as a financial incentive but estimates a $5,000 to $15,000 MSRP increase for an EV over a “similar conventional car.”
Overall, EV ownership costs may balance out. According to a 2020 Consumer Reports study, an EV owner can save $6,000 to $10,000 over the vehicle’s life compared to a gas-powered car. They will also spend 60% less to power their cars and about half as much to repair and maintain an EV than a conventional vehicle.
Considering all these factors, switching to an EV is still a climate-friendly choice.