Skip to main content

How does the environmental impact of an EV compare to a gas vehicle?

Jun 29, 2023


The Biden administration’s push to get more electric vehicles (EVs) on the road as a means to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve long-term environmental benefits has received billions of dollars in funding. However, while EVs emit less carbon during their operational phase, their production process can be significantly carbon-intensive, as highlighted in a recent MIT study on the carbon footprint of electric cars compared to gas-powered vehicles.

“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars. Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30% to 40% extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production,” said Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.

The MIT study revealed that building an EV, when factoring in the mining of minerals required for lithium-ion batteries, results in nearly double the carbon footprint of constructing a gas-powered car before either vehicle drives a single mile. Yet, once the tires hit the road, the emissions gap gradually diminishes.

Research by the Union of Concerned Scientists indicated that once EVs reach approximately 15,000 miles, their carbon footprint equals that of internal combustion engine vehicles.

Over the lifespan of a vehicle, typically around 200,000 miles, the carbon emissions from an electric option will be 52% lower than those from a gas-powered vehicle. Although, if the goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, as indicated by the White House, additional efforts are required to accelerate progress. A working group of 17 government agencies, chaired by presidential climate advisors to lead the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative, has said that “success will require nearly complete transformation of today’s energy system” and that it will require “unprecedented effort, scale and creativity.”

As the energy grid becomes greener, with an increasing share of renewable sources such as solar and hydro power, the carbon reduction benefits of EVs are expected to grow further. Studies project that electric cars will generate over 75% fewer emissions per mile than their gas-powered counterparts as countries adopt cleaner energy alternatives.

“Currently, the electric vehicle in the U.S., on average, would emit about 200 grams of CO2 per mile,” Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, said. “We are projecting that with cleaning up the grid, we can reduce emissions from electric vehicles by 75%, from about 200 (grams) today to about 50 grams of CO2 per mile in 2050.”

Nevertheless, challenges remain regarding the lifecycle of EV batteries. While driving an EV brings savings in emissions and fuel costs, the beginning and end of a car battery’s life present complex problems that have yet to be fully resolved. Recycling technologies for batteries are being developed globally, but profitability remains elusive, and many methods are energy-intensive.

The accumulation of dead car batteries necessitates recycling to prevent toxic materials from seeping into the environment at waste sites, as well as to reduce the costs associated with their initial production.

Extracting the materials for batteries, such as cobalt, also raises concerns beyond pollution, including human rights abuses, toxic waste and water depletion. The Democratic Republic of the Congo alone reportedly employs around 40,000 children in dangerous conditions to extract cobalt, a crucial component of battery cells. Similar violations have been found in mineral supply chains worldwide, with major car manufacturers like Toyota, General Motors and Tesla, among others, relying on these resources.

“The boom in electric vehicles sales should be an opportunity to pull Congo’s people out of poverty but the desperate accounts from workers at Congo’s cobalt mines tell a different story,” said Josué Kashal of CAJJ, a Congolese legal aid centre specializing in labor rights. “The switch to clean energy must be a just transition, not one built on the backs of exploited Congolese workers.”

Efforts to address these challenges are underway, with the European Union leading the charge. The EU has introduced legislation that, if globally adopted, could reduce annual demand for raw materials by over a quarter within the next 30 years through recycling. The proposed measures include increased transparency from EV manufacturers regarding material sourcing and the obligation for companies to mitigate social and environmental risks within their supply chains.

“The urgency of the climate crisis demands bold action from both industry and governments that sacrifice neither people nor the planet,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of the corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development. “Producing truly ‘ethical’ batteries free from workers’ exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental harm, which contributes to a just transition and does not repeat the injustice of the fossil fuel based economy, is vital.” 

Tags: , , , , , , ,