A new study lays to rest the tired argument that electric vehicles aren’t much cleaner than internal combustion vehicles. Over the life cycle of an EV — from digging up the materials needed to build it to eventually laying the car to rest — it will release fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a gas-powered car, the research found. That holds true globally, whether an EV plugs into a grid in Europe with a larger share of renewables, or a grid in India that still relies heavily on coal.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis. So governments from California to the European Union have proposed phasing out internal combustion engines by 2035. But there are still people who claim that EVs are only as clean as the grids they run on — and right now, fossil fuels still dominate when it comes to the energy mix in most places.
“We have a lot of lobby work from parts of the automotive industry saying that electric vehicles are not that much better if you take into account the electricity production and the battery production. We wanted to look into this and see whether these arguments are true,” says Georg Bieker, a researcher at the nonprofit research group the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) that published the report. The ICCT’s analysis found that those arguments don’t hold true over time.
The report estimates the emissions from medium-sized EVs registered in 2021 in either India, China, the US, or Europe — countries that make up 70 percent of new car sales globally and are representative of other markets across the world, the ICCT says. Lifetime emissions for an EV in Europe are between 66 and 69 percent lower compared to that of a gas-guzzling vehicle, the analysis found. In the US, an EV produces between 60 to 68 percent fewer emissions. In China, which uses more coal, an EV results in between 37 to 45 percent fewer emissions. In India, it’s between 19 to 34 percent lower.
It’s important to note that the study assumes that the vehicle was registered in 2021 and will be on the road for around 18 years. Study authors ended up with a range of potential emissions reductions for each region by looking at the energy mix under existing policy, as well as projections from the International Energy Agency for what the future electricity mix will look like as climate policies develop. But it’s difficult to predict how much the world’s energy infrastructure will actually change. For example in the US, President Joe Biden has set a goal of getting 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 — but still needs to pass the policies to make that happen. The study also doesn’t take into account other non-climate related environmental effects that constructing the cars might have from things like mining and waste.
Actually building an EV is still a little more carbon-intensive than building a traditional vehicle. Recycling EV batteries could eventually bring that carbon intensity down. But for now, EV drivers start to reap the climate benefits after driving their car for a year or so, according to Bieker. That’s when the car passes the threshold when the emissions that it saves by running on cleaner electricity make it a better option for the climate than a traditional car.
Bieker hopes the ICCT’s findings will help policymakers make more informed decisions about the future of transportation. Climate experts are rushing to bring global greenhouse gas emissions down to near zero by the middle of the century to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Electric vehicles are necessary to make those cuts happen, and even hybrid-electric vehicles aren’t clean enough to meet that goal. The report recommends against allowing any new internal combustion vehicles on the road by the 2030s.
“Combustion engine vehicles of any kind are not able to deliver the greenhouse gas reductions we need to live with climate change,” Bieker says. “That’s a global finding, therefore we need globally to phase out combustion engine cars.”