Alongside claims that electric cars are no fun to drive, can’t cover long-distances easily or cost just too much to own, those who are suspicious of plug-in cars have long used the long tailpipe argument to dismiss their environmental benefits: that the total emissions of producing and using an electric car are no better than those of a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle.
To help them in their argument, critics often cite extra carbon emitted during the mining and refining of the metals used in electric car battery packs, as well as well as the claim that when charged on electricity generated by coal, electric cars emit more carbon than gasoline vehicles.
Now there’s a new study which debunks all of those allegations in one fell swoop, proving that no matter which U.S. state you happen to live in, electric cars are still far cleaner than gasoline powered ones. In fact, over the course of an electric car’s lifetime, they’ll be responsible for one half of the carbon emissions of a similar spec gasoline vehicle.
Enter Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave: How Electric Cars Beat Gasoline Cars on Lifetime Global Warming Emissions. A brand-new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, it has been written after two years of extensive work examining the lifetime carbon emissions of electric cars versus similarly-sized gasoline models, expressing the total effective emissions in grams of CO2e per mile for each vehicle type.
Taking into account the carbon emissions produced during the construction process of both gasoline and electric cars, the study did indeed find that a mid-sized, mid-range electric car like the 2015 Nissan LEAF accounted for around 8 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions during its manufacturing process, a full 1 metric ton more than a similarly-sized gasoline vehicle.
That extra emissions comes from the mining, refining and manufacturing processes associated with the battery pack, with the study noting that a car with a larger, longer-range battery pack like the Tesla Model S, manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68 percent higher than a Nissan LEAF-sized EV, although a Model S is accounts for 53 percent less emissions during its lifetime compared to a full-sized gasoline sedan.
During the lifetime of an internal combustion engine car, the gasoline used accounts for an additional 42 metric tons of emissions, including the emissions associated with mining, refining and transporting liquid fuel to gas stations. Electric cars, meanwhile, average a total of just 13 metric tons of emissions during their lifetime on the road, thanks to the average carbon emissions of the electrical grid.
Add in the emissions associated with recycling and decommission at the end of life — and the fact that an electric car battery pack can be recycled or reused, saving it from landfill — and things start to get very interesting indeed.
Since the U.S. power grid mix is as diverse as the fifty states that makes up the union, the Union of Concerned Scientists used data from each region to calculate carbon emissions and the effective miles per gallon equivalent an electric car was achieving in each region.
Even in states where coal power still accounts for a large proportion of electricity generation, the study proved that an electric car driven there would achieve same carbon emissions during its lifetime as a gasoline-powered car averaging 35 miles per gallon. That’s more than ten miles per gallon more than the average new used car sold in the U.S. last year.
Look at states where a larger proportion of grid electricity is produced from renewable methods however, and a car like the Nissan LEAF is responsible for the same amount of emissions during its lifetime as a car which gets upwards of 80 miles per gallon.
In the Pacific Northwest for example, the average electric car has the equivalent emissions of a 94 MPG car. In upstate NewYork, it’s nearer to 135 MPG. Take the nation as a whole, and the average electric vehicle (using sales-weighted data) emits the same emissions as a car managing 68 miles per gallon).
So far so good. But what you might not know is that the Union of Concerned Scientists carried out a similar study in 2012. And in the time since then, something truly wonderful has happened: the U.S. electrical grid has (for the most part) become far greener. A lot greener, in fact.
Back in 2012, when the State of Charge report was published, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that 45 percent of Americans lived in regions where powering an electric car from the standard regional electricity grid mix produced lower global warming emissions than the best 50 MPG gasoline car. This year, 66 percent of Americans live in regions where the same is true.
Moreover, of the twenty-six regions examined in 2012, twenty have reduced their local grid emissions in the past three years.
What does this all mean? We’ll let the Union of Concerned Scientists explain.
“Electric vehicles already result in far less climate pollution than their gas-powered counterparts, and they’re getting cleaner. Optimizing EV production and the disposal or reuse of batteries could further increase their environmental benefits. And as electricity becomes cleaner (which it is), the difference between electric cars and gasoline cars will only grow—cementing the role of electric vehicles in halving U.S. oil useand cutting global warming emissions,” it says in its official press release accompanying the study.
To find out what the emissions of electric cars are in your area, you can either download the full report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, or use its nifty interactive tool to examine the effective emissions of owning an electric car in your neighborhood.
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