Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Chart: EVs are definitely cleaner than gas cars over their lifetime

It’s time to put the questions to rest: Drivers quickly cut their emissions footprint by going electric, and EVs are only getting cleaner.
By Julian Spector, Dan McCarthy

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A burgundy car on an assembly line. A graphic overlay reads CHART OF THE WEEK.

Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Myths run rampant about whether electric vehicles are actually better for the climate than fossil-fueled cars. Electric vehicles run on batteries, which are made from mined minerals and then charged with electricity; those steps involve some amount of carbon emissions.

But electric cars still emit far less carbon than comparable gas cars would over their useful lives, a new study (paywalled) from BloombergNEF found.

BloombergNEF modeled electric-vehicle emissions from manufacturing and use in China, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. The analysis found that battery manufacturing makes the production phase of EVs more carbon-emitting than that of conventional cars, but charging and driving EVs produces far less greenhouse gas than fueling and driving internal-combustion-engine cars in all the geographies surveyed. And the grids in all those regions will get considerably cleaner in the coming decades, making EVs even more of a slam-dunk for the climate.

The key metric here is the break-even point, which measures how long someone needs to drive an EV before its lifetime emissions sink below those of a comparable combustion-engine vehicle.

For the typical EV made in the U.S. in 2023 — think a Tesla Model 3 — that payback happens after driving just 41,000 kilometers (25,476 miles). A typical American driver would hit that in 2.1 years. By 2030, this will take half as long because the grid will have gotten considerably cleaner.

Two years in the U.S. — that’s not that long in the life of a car,” said Corey Cantor, BNEF senior associate for electric vehicles and one of the authors of the report.

Several insights follow from this. If someone buys an EV, works from home and basically never drives it, that could well be worse for carbon emissions than just keeping an old gas car around (or ditching car ownership altogether). Conversely, supercommuters could reap the climate benefits of switching to electric within a year of purchase.

The findings also underscore the climate benefits of onshoring electric-vehicle production, a trend that picked up with help from the Inflation Reduction Act’s domestic manufacturing subsidies. A typical EV made in China today takes 118,000 kilometers of driving to break even with emissions from a comparable gas car because the grid there is still so coal-dependent. Building batteries and cars in the U.S. with cleaner energy — and avoiding the need to ship heavy things across the world — produces lower-emission EVs. Battery recycling could further decrease emissions from the battery supply chain compared to new mining.

BNEF calculated the top-line figures based on the average annual grid emissions-intensity in the respective countries. In practice, certain regions produce cleaner electricity than the national average, and every grid has moments where power is more or less carbon-intensive. In other words: precise details matter, from where cars are manufactured to where and when they’re charged.

Those variables don’t change the overall takeaway: Electric vehicles are cleaner from a carbon-emissions standpoint than internal combustion vehicles — and they’re only getting cleaner.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.

Dan McCarthy is news editor at Canary Media.