Expert Insights

Are Electric Cars Better for the Environment?

Laurance Yap
June 13, 2023
Are electric cars better for the environment than gasoline vehicles? Yes, but it's a complicated question. EVs may reduce carbon emissions but what about the negative impact of lithium mining? Can a car be truly green when electricity is still dirty?
an electric car driving down the road

Are Electric Cars Better for the Environment?

There are three aspects that need to be considered when evaluating the impact that electric cars have on the environment: tailpipe (direct) emissions, wheel-to-well emissions, and electricity sources. The impact on tailpipe emission reduction is simple: since electric cars lack an exhaust system, they produce zero tailpipe emissions. The other kinds of emissions are a little more complicated.

Wheel-to-Well Emissions

Wheel-to-well emissions is an umbrella term used to incorporate all emissions related to the production, processing, distribution and use of electricity. Most electric power plants produce emissions and there are additional emissions associated with every step of the energy source’s production cycle.

Electric cars emit an average of 4,100 lbs. of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent each year while traditional gasoline vehicles emit an average of 11,435 lbs. of CO2 equivalent each year — that’s more than double the emissions of EVs.

cars charging by solar panel in parking lot

EV Electricity Sources

The amount of wheel-to-well emissions that an electric car produces is largely dependent on geographical location and the preferred energy source of that area. For instance, if you charge your electric car in Colorado, you will likely have higher wheel-to-well emissions than somebody charging their vehicle in Massachusetts, because a majority of Colorado’s electricity is fueled by coal where Massachusetts prefers cleaner natural gas as its primary energy source. It’s difficult to say which state is better, because most areas in the U.S. currently use a mixture of resources to generate electricity.

Overall, the best way to maximize the environmental benefits of an electric car and minimize its associated wheel-to-well emissions is by sourcing electricity from renewable energy. If you are planning to purchase an electric car in the future and want to lower your wheel-to-well emissions, consider asking your local utility or community choice aggregation (CCA) about any special programs or offers available. You could also consider installing solar panels.

zoom in of electric car charging

Global Impact of Electric Cars

Since the transportation sector continues to be responsible for a significant source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, studies show that electric cars can help tackle climate change and contribute to better air quality. In fact, simulation models have shown that widespread electric car adoption would aid in the fight of limiting global warming by at least two degrees Celsius, which would meet a target of the 2016 Paris Agreement.

Nine countries, including the U.S., have currently announced their intent to restrict or ban the use of all internal combustion engines and reduce national tailpipe emissions to zero at some specified year in the future. As fossil fuel reliance decreases over the years, wheel-to-well emissions of electric cars could also see a decrease of at least 73% by 2050, nearly reducing the total emissions of BEVs to zero.

Environmental Impact of Lithium Mining

The environmental impact of mining for lithium also continues to be a topic of debate. More than half of the world’s reserves are found in the brine of salt flats within an area known as the Lithium Triangle: a massive region in South America that spans across the countries of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Over the past few years, mining in these areas has intensified due to the increased global demand for lithium, which is prevalently used in the batteries of many electronics, such as smartphones, laptops and medical devices.

With electric cars on the rise in many developed countries, the price of lithium batteries is expected to drop as more mining occurs to meet this rising demand. But excessive mining is not without its consequences.

To mine for lithium, holes are drilled into salt flats and large amounts of water are pumped into the holes to churn up the brine and push the mineral-rich liquid to the surface into large salt ponds. The sun then evaporates the water in these ponds and leaves the minerals behind. One of the biggest problems with this procedure is that it depletes the local water sources and permanently damages nearby ecosystems.

In Chile, meadows and lagoons near these salt ponds have shrunk over the years, making it difficult for local farmers and traveling shepherds to provide for themselves and feed their livestock. The area’s transformation has also contributed to the decline of the flamingo population due to the lack of available water and grass in the local ecosystems. Even without purchasing a BEV, a simple eco-friendly habit goes a long way — recycle your electronic batteries to help offset the demand for imported lithium.

electric car charger close-up

Final Thoughts on the Environmental Impact of Electric Cars

Are electric cars better for the environment than gasoline vehicles? Yes, but it has yet to become a 100% sustainable solution. Without a doubt, BEVs are headed down the correct path towards eco-friendly transportation, but issues surrounding the continued reliance of fossil fuels and increased mining for lithium must first be solved to make this technology truly sustainable.

It is ultimately our duty as consumers to embrace positive change and do our civic duty to lower our transportation emissions while practicing environmentally friendly habits.