In the past, some studies claimed that electric vehicles (EVs) weren’t actually better for the environment: The energy used to make the battery plus the emissions from making electricity could make the total footprint worse than a gas-powered car. Or so the argument went. A detailed new report shows that isn’t true. No matter where an EV is used, even if it charges on an electric grid that uses coal power, it has a smaller carbon footprint than a fossil fuel-powered car.
One factor is that it’s less polluting to make batteries than previously thought. “Earlier studies, done several years ago, were using what we now understand is outdated data on battery production emissions,” says Stephanie Searle, a program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, the organization that published the report. “At that time, there were not many vehicle batteries being produced, and we didn’t have real data as to the emissions from their production. So people had to estimate it, just basically guessing what those emissions would be. Now that the electric vehicle industry has started to scale up, and we have commercial-scale battery production facilities running and have real data from them, we understand that the typical emissions from producing batteries is actually much, much lower than we previously believed.” (In the future, battery recycling could make these emissions drop much further.)
The new study also looked at electricity use in four regions: the European Union, the United States, India, and China. Although India and China still rely heavily on coal power plants for electricity, the emissions from charging an electric car purchased now will continue to drop over time. “A typical vehicle is used for 15 to 18 years,” Searle says. “And so if you buy a vehicle today, the electricity that’s being used to charge it today is one thing, but that vehicle is going to be around for 15 to 18 years, and the electric grid is going to decarbonize over that time.”
The transportation sector is responsible for around 25% of greenhouse gas emissions now, with passenger cars making up the largest chunk of that. To meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement and limit the worst impacts of climate change, it’s necessary to move completely to electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the study says—hybrid cars, and cars running on biofuels or other alternative fuels, don’t go far enough. And to reach a net-zero economy by the middle of the century, the report says that we’ll need to stop selling fossil fuel-powered cars soon. If a typical car might stay in use for 15 to 18 years, if we need to be driving only zero-emission vehicles by 2050, countries will need to ban sales of new gas and diesel cars by 2030 to 2035.