Do you want a new car? Are you considering choosing an electric car over a gas car? It’s one of the most impactful environmental decisions you’ll make in your lifetime—in fact, Americans buy an average of 9.4 vehicles during their lifetime. You have plenty of opportunities to make the right choice for the planet, so let’s dive into the trade-offs that make an electric vehicle the better choice.
Sometimes it can be difficult to decide which of the many choices you face is the most environmentally responsible. There are so many angles and trade-offs to consider that even a well-considered decision can feel like a leap of faith. For example, swapping your classic muscle car for an electric vehicle (EV) is clearly an eco-friendly choice. On the other hand, buying an EV so you can stop riding the bus is not. But what kind of impact does replacing your new compact car with a zero-emission vehicle have?
When it comes to deciding what type of car to buy, the correct answer may vary from person to person. Here’s what you need to know to make your greener choice.
The carbon footprint of the car
Every step in a vehicle’s life cycle has a significant environmental impact. Cars require a lot of material and energy resources to manufacture. They contain many toxic and non-recyclable materials that harm the environment both in the manufacturing process and at the end of the vehicle’s life. Although the environmental costs of car production, recycling, and disposal are important, they are difficult to quantify. But the largest life cycle impact of a vehicle – estimated at 80% to 90% – comes from extracting and burning fossil fuels to power the vehicle.
At least, this is the case for a car with a conventional combustion engine. The ratio is much different for electric vehicles, which run much more efficiently than gas-powered cars. But because of their batteries, which require minerals with extremely harmful extraction practices, the production of electric vehicles has a much larger footprint than the production of regular cars. According to one study, emissions from the production of electric vehicles are 59% higher than from the production of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs).
The same study determined that electric vehicles have 18% lower life cycle emissions than ICEVs (assuming they have a lifespan of 150,000 miles). This emission number can change depending on the source of the electricity that powers the EV. For example, a fossil fuel-powered compact sedan emits about 251 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven. Driving an electric vehicle in Australia (where the electricity mix is about 21% renewable) emits around 170 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. An EV in New Zealand (where the electricity mix is 84% renewable) emits only about 25g CO2 per km on average. In either case, the electric vehicle is superior to the ICEV, but the difference is most significant when using renewable energy.
environmental return on investment
So wherever you are, an EV is a better buy than an ICEV. But does it make sense to upgrade your car in order to get this improved environmental performance? How long does it take for fuel efficiency to make up for a new car? Again, a lot depends on the specific vehicle chosen, electricity source, and how much you drive, so it’s hard to give general guidelines. But one Australian study developed a formula for calculating the variables:
productionice + (annualice x T) = productionEV + (annualEV xT)
They calculated that a standard-range electric vehicle would make up for its higher output emissions in just under a year, with an additional three months for each battery replacement. Remember that your miles using this formula may vary verbatim.
how to drive
If you drive below average or your electricity source is coal, it will take longer for electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions. Or if your current car gets very good gas mileage, switching to an EV won’t affect your transportation footprint as much as replacing the fuel-guzzling gas one. If buying an electric car causes you to drive more instead of taking the bus or walking, it could increase your environmental footprint.
In the final analysis, buying an electric car is always more environmentally friendly than buying one with a combustion engine. Buying an electric car usually results in a smaller carbon footprint than waiting longer to replace your old (or even not-so-old) car. But EV owners need to be aware of the environmental effects of driving. They must still take steps to reduce its impact. Buy used when possible, maintain your car for maximum efficiency, and if you don’t have to drive to get somewhere, leave the car at home.
end of the road
The final consideration is what to do with your old car once you upgrade to electric. American drivers average 25 mpg. If the car you’re trading in gets higher-than-average gas mileage, chances are the person buying it will improve their carbon footprint as well. But if your car has low fuel mileage, consider donating it to charity or recycling it.
This article was originally published on July 21, 2020.