Are Electric Cars Better For The Environment Than Gas Powered Cars?


We’re always amazed by the divide between people who love EVs and those who hate them, and here’s why.

Are electric cars better for the environment than gas-powered cars? Even though the electric car has a larger carbon footprint than a gas car due to the batteries, overall, when you take into consideration the emissions through the respective life cycles, the electric car is far better for the environment than the gas-powered car, and here’s why…

There are a few key points that people often cite when arguing that electric vehicles aren’t as clean as you think.

The first is that manufacturing electric vehicles has a larger carbon footprint than gasoline cars, due to the additional need for batteries.

The second reason is that mining and extracting all the different elements like nickel and cobalt is also dangerous for the environment.

The third common point of contention is that while EVs don’t pollute as they drive, the grid from which they draw their electricity more surely does.

It’s often stated, that an electric car, is just a coal-powered car. There is merit to some of these points, and so that’s why we’re going to set the record straight.

To answer this question we have to look at the carbon footprint of manufacturing electric and gasoline cars, and then the carbon footprint throughout their respective life-cycles.

Many also believe that just driving your old car is better for the environment, than it is to manufacture a new one.

So for good measure, let’s also throw in an old used car. According to bts.gov, the average vehicle in the United States is about 11 years old.

For our electric vehicle in this comparison, we’re going with the best selling EV of 2018, the Tesla Model 3.

For our gasoline car, we’re going to look at the best selling, comparable, brand new 2018 Toyota Camry. For our used car, we’ll look at an 11-year-old, 2007 Toyota Camry.

Both Camrys are V6’s to better compete with the performance of the Model 3. Thanks to Volkswagen and Dieselgate, diesel cars are quickly becoming persona non grata, so we’ll look at a 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI.

Lastly for our hybrid, let’s go with the venerable, ubiquitous, 2018 Toyota Prius. Let’s start with the carbon footprint of manufacturing a new car.

Admittedly this one is tricky, if not outright impossible. To fully understand the complete carbon footprint of building a new car, we’d have to consider every drop of gasoline burned to transport components, factory power consumption and emissions, and the cascading emissions of each sub-vendor.

So it suffices to say that we’re going to have to take some liberties and make some assumptions. So let’s be clear about this, of all the ways we’ve seen to approximate this value, we think it makes the most sense to assess it by vehicle weight.

The larger and heavier a vehicle, the larger it’s carbon footprint. We have three data points upon which we’ve based our assumptions. The Citroen C1, a tiny compact European car, produces 6 tons or 6000 kilograms, of CO2 equivalent to manufacturing, and weighs about 800 kg.

What is CO2 Equivalent?

Now, what is CO2 equivalent you might be asking? Well, we usually hear about Carbon Dioxide when talking about greenhouse gases, but there are several others, like Methane, and Hydrofluorocarbons.

The climate change potential of the other gases is weighted against carbon dioxide, and based on quantities of each, combined to form a Carbon Dioxide equivalent score.

For example, methane is 25 times more impactful on climate change, and so 1 kg of methane, would have a carbon dioxide equivalent rating of 25 kgs. Ok, so so our next data point is a Ford Mondeo, a midsize sedan, that emits 17.0 tons of CO2e to manufacture, and weighs about 1,600 kgs.

Lastly, a Land Rover Discovery emits 25 tons of CO2e to manufacture and weighs about 2,200 kg. If we fit these data points on a curve and use the best fit line, we have ourselves a crude model to approximate all the cars in our comparison.

Now we know this isn’t exact, but EVs like Teslas tend to weigh a lot, and with our model, the results, are close to what we’d expect. So we aren’t going to apply an additional battery emission tax, we’ll allow the gross vehicle weight to account for it.

We found it interesting that the emissions levels don’t increase linearly with curb weight, but closer to a power of 2. We only have 3 data points, so we’re not going to read too much into this, but it does make sense.

As you add weight, you have more components, more electronics, doors windows, seats, cloth, and a beefed-up chassis to support it all. Now with all that math, we have a baseline for our day 1 emission levels.

The new Camry starts at 15.5 tons of CO2e, The Prius, at 12.5, The Passat at 16.5, and the Tesla Model 3 at 22.0. So because of the Tesla Model 3’s high curb weight of 4000 lbs or 1800 kgs, it has polluted the most upon taking delivery.

Now the old 2007 Camry has the same emissions levels as the new Camry, but being used, we start it at 0. Based on the EPA website, we have data for emissions in grams per mile for each vehicle.

Factoring 15,000 miles a year driven, and converting to metric tons, which is 1000 kgs, we have the following values in tons of CO2 annually for each vehicle.

Now many of our commentators have pointed out, that people tend to only consider the emissions from burning a gallon of gasoline as if gasoline just grew on trees. In reality, there’s an entire upstream emissions value for gasoline, and the EPA website provides that too.

Regional Factors To Consider

So all our figures include emissions from the tailpipe, plus all the upstream emissions to extract, refine and ship gasoline. For Tesla, and all Evs, this is a function of where you live, and how clean your energy grid happens to be.

So we will look at Tesla ownership in the most prominent US Market, California, and also in West Virginia, a state where coal makes up more than 90% of its energy production.

Your numbers will fall somewhere in between, and if you live in an especially clean country, like many in Europe, your figures will be even better than the California ones.

Pollution Per Year

So on day 1, the Used Camry jumps out to an early lead, with a 0 emissions value. Yeah it’s true, buying a used car, really is good for the environment, but let’s see how long that lead lasts. Fast-forwarding to year 5, we already see some exciting lead changes.

Now the cleanest car is the Prius, followed closely in second by Tesla in California. Coming in third is the used Camry, followed by The Tesla In West Virginia, then the diesel Passat, and in dead, last is the Brand new Toyota Camry.

In just a little over 3 years, a brand new Prius pollutes less than the used Camry. Tesla in either state, is cleaner than Both the diesel Passat and the brand new Camry, in less than 3 years.

Tesla in California becomes the cleanest car by about 5 and a half years. Lastly, the diesel Passat beats the used Camry becoming the fourth cleanest by year 11 and a half.

These results are pretty surprising to us because we thought the used Camry would do much better than it ended up doing.

The Tesla, shockingly, even with its big battery pack, beats its closest rivals in less than 3 years. Just for fun, we ran the same numbers on the best selling vehicle in the US for over three decades, the Ford F-150.

With curb weights between 4000 and 5000 lbs, we started its life at the same 22 tons of CO2e as the Tesla.

With its lowest in comparison fuel efficiency figures, it has the most significant carbon footprint. Lastly, there’s one more critical point about Tesla owners.

According to a report by Clean Technica, between 28 – 40% of EV drivers, also have solar panels. You’ve probably heard of people saying their cars run on sunshine, and for many, it’s true.

According to a study by Solar Innova, the lifetime emissions per kWh produced for a photovoltaic solar panel is 72 grams.

So we’re also going to add a third Tesla, but this one is powered purely by solar panels. Again the emissions aren’t zero, because there’s an environmental price to pay for manufacturing, transporting and installing solar panels.

However, it’s incredibly low, and unlike the Tesla-powered by the California Grid, that takes 5.5 years to beat the Prius, the solar-powered Tesla, wins in just 3.5 years.

But in the 15 years, we extrapolated, electricity and gasoline are heading in very different directions. Just 10 years ago, in California, only about 10% of its energy came from renewable sources, whereas today, that number is about 30%.

This trend will continue, as solar and wind get cheaper and cheaper while finding new oil sources gets harder and harder. In the case of oil, we need to revisit the concept of E-ROI or energy return on investment.

It’s like a financial investment, if you invest $1,000 and end up making $2,000, your ROI is 2. Similarly, E-ROI is the measure of energy created divided by the energy required to create it. Let’s look at Oil imports from 1990, which had an E-ROI of 25.

In 2005, it dropped to 18, in 2007 down to just 12. Oil is getting harder and harder to produce and requires more energy. All the easy to reach oil, is pretty much gone, and what’s left is oil sands, and oil shale, which needs to be heated to separate, before it can even be shipped to refine.

Offshore drilling is also very labor-intensive, and pumping and transportation costs will also continue to rise. So in the next 15 years, the emissions from one gallon of gasoline will continue to rise, and there’s a good chance that energy grids will get cleaner in that same period.

So if anything, EVs are going to be even cleaner than we think. In case you disagree with our approach to calculating manufacturing emissions, we’re going to share our spreadsheets and calculators, so you can adjust it as you wish.

However, the reality is, that electric vehicles are cleaner and better for the environment. Gasoline can never get cleaner it can only get dirtier, so the sooner electric cars prevail, the sooner we can start cleaning up our acts.

If you think that the incredible stress all those EVs would have on the power grid would be a problem, don’t worry we have a future article planned to cover this. We’ll link to it as soon as it’s available.

Lastly, there’s the question of recycling these big EV battery packs. According to Tesla, they have a partnership providing a closed-loop battery recycling program. This paper is from 2011, and much has changed.

As EV sales move from hundreds of thousands to millions, it will become increasingly lucrative to recycle old battery packs. Tesla claims that this recycling process can reduce 70% of the emissions of mining and refining the raw materials from the source.

So while studies suggest that end of life recycling can contribute another 1-4 tons of CO2e, we aren’t going to add that to our final numbers because those same values will reduce future EV manufacturing emissions by a similar amount.

We are going to dive into the recycling aspect of EV Batteries in a future article. So what do you guys think, were the results surprising? There’ a lot of misinformation out there, so please considering sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

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