Are electric cars better for the environment?

Yes. Here’s how much better.

The automobile has taken a significant toll on the climate. Why? Gasoline-powered cars produce an incredible amount of air pollution. Every second that your gas engine is running, it's releasing dangerous chemicals and planet-warming emissions into the environment.

By comparison, electric vehicles (EVs) have a significantly lower impact on the environment than gasoline cars. EVs aren’t responsible for any tailpipe pollution. And they have a far smaller carbon footprint over their lifetimes.

Let’s take a closer look at all the ways EVs outperform gasoline cars when it comes to the environment.

Environmental impacts of gas cars

Air pollution

Image has light purple background with black and white SUV on the right and grey, white and purple bubbles on the left. Large purple bubbles with white text include the words: formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.

The stuff that comes out of gasoline cars’ tailpipes is straight-up bad for your health, the health of your community, and the planet. The laundry list of nastiness includes these pollutants that are tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, are gases that damage your lungs and increase the likelihood of asthma attacks. These compounds are most abundant in large urban areas and along busy roadways. They’re especially dangerous for the very young, the very old, and people with preexisting medical conditions, according to the American Lung Association.

  • Particulate matter, or PM, is an umbrella term for all the tiny bits of solids and liquids in the air that are small enough for us to breathe in. Particulates also cause lung problems, and they can make their way into your bloodstream and affect your heart. Those with heart or lung disease are most vulnerable, according to the EPA.

  • Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an invisible but poisonous gas. The effects of exposure range from headaches, nausea, and dizziness to permanent brain and heart damage. CO poses the highest risk to fetuses, young children, and the elderly, according to the Mayo Clinic.

  • Formaldehyde is a toxic, flammable gas that’s best known for its use in embalming fluid and as a medical preservative. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. Long-term exposure has been shown to cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

  • Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that evaporate easily. Inhaling them can lead to a wide range of health problems, ranging from eye, nose, and throat irritation to organ and nerve damage. Some VOCs are even known to cause cancer, according to the American Lung Association.

When nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds released from tailpipes react with sunlight, they produce ground-level ozone. Ozone is a good thing when it’s high in the sky, protecting us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. However ground-level ozone can cause severe lung issues, especially for people with asthma and other lung conditions.

Ground-level ozone is the biggest ingredient in unhealthy and visible smog, or air pollution, often seen in areas with a lot of traffic.

Climate change

Gasoline is a fossil fuel. It’s made from crude oil that has been drilled or fracked from deep underground. When it’s burned, it breaks down into carbon dioxide and other gases that worsen climate change.

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The EPA estimates that a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s like burning over 5,000 pounds of coal! 

Multiply that by the roughly 275 million passenger vehicles on the road in the U.S., and suddenly you’re looking at the emissions equivalent of running hundreds of coal plants or thousands of natural gas plants—or burning more than a trillion pounds of coal every year.

In total, the transportation sector was responsible for 28% of U.S. carbon emissions in 2021, largely because cars, trucks, and ships burned so much gasoline and diesel fuel.

Environmental impacts of EVs

Mining and manufacturing

While EVs are a lot better for the environment than gasoline cars, they’re not perfect. Like everything we use, from our electronics to our clothes, they’re made of components that come from the earth.

All cars are built from strong metals like steel and aluminum, both of which are often made using coal. Even though it takes more mining and more energy to manufacture an EV battery than a combustion engine, the carbon footprint of a gasoline car still catches and passes an EV’s carbon footprint within the first couple of years of use.

EV batteries currently use mined materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. This mining, just like the production of crude oil, is responsible for damage to ecosystems.

Thankfully, many automakers and researchers are working on carbon-neutral methods to make metals, and developing more sustainable batteries that require less mining. As the electricity supply becomes cleaner, the emissions caused by manufacturing are also expected to shrink.

Electricity generation

EVs are sometimes referred to as zero-emission vehicles because EVs that run entirely on battery power don’t release carbon dioxide and other pollutants the way combustion engines do.

In fact, EVs can be powered entirely by clean electricity. For example, if you have solar panels on your roof and you use them to charge your EV, there will be virtually no emissions associated with that energy. Aside from walking and biking, that’s about as clean as any form of travel can be!

But when you plug an EV directly into the electric grid, either at home or at a charging station, you are most likely getting some electricity from renewable resources, some from fossil fuels, and some from nuclear power. The share of electricity that comes from renewables varies depending on where you live. But on average, wind and solar produced a little more than 21% of U.S. electricity in 2022.

While still small, that’s a huge jump from a decade ago. And we’re on track to see another big jump this decade. The emissions that result from charging an EV are also falling rapidly and will continue to shrink as more renewables are built and more coal plants are shut down.

Carbon footprint of electric vs. gas cars

Manufacturing emissions

Even though manufacturing gasoline cars produces less carbon than manufacturing EVs, burning gasoline while driving still does way more damage to the climate. This is because manufacturing only represents a small fraction of a vehicle’s emissions over its 10-to-15-year lifetime.

In other words, the only time gasoline cars have lower carbon emissions than electric vehicles is while they’re still on the production line. The moment a gasoline vehicle hits the road, its carbon footprint is destined to outpace that of an EV.

Operating emissions

The majority of the emissions gap between EVs and gasoline cars comes from using them.

Just how much cleaner EVs are depends partly on where the electricity they use comes from. But according to the EPA, charging and driving an EV is almost always better for the climate than fueling and driving a gasoline car — even when you factor in the electricity that comes from fossil fuels.

Estimates vary, but most have found that gasoline cars emit at least twice as much carbon as EVs over their lifetimes.

Our research at Rewiring America found that an average household can reduce its carbon footprint by 5.75 metric tons per year just by switching from a gas-powered sedan to an electric alternative.

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And the cleaner the electric grid gets, the smaller EVs’ carbon emissions will become.

Dispelling myths about EVs and the environment

There's a lot of information out there about the environmental impact of mining, battery production, and electricity generation related to EVs. Some of it's right, but a lot of it's wrong. Here's the reality.

Mining reality: Mining for EV battery components indeed causes environmental damage. It's also true that the impacts of fracking and the carbon emissions from burning gasoline are much worse for the environment overall.

Battery-production reality: Mining and then refining the raw materials used to make EV batteries account for about a quarter of the very real carbon emissions related to their production. But even when you factor in all the emissions produced by manufacturing EVs, a gasoline car emits so much carbon that within the first couple of years of use, its carbon footprint has already outpaced the lifetime carbon footprint of an EV.

Electricity-generation reality: Indeed, a large share of electricity in most parts of the country is still generated from fossil fuels. However research has found that EVs are still consistently cleaner right now than gasoline cars — and will continue to get cleaner as more electricity comes from wind and solar generation.

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Rewiring America is the leading electrification nonprofit working to electrify our homes, businesses, and communities.

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