Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Climate? Yes. Here’s Why

Updated: May 21, 2020

By David Reichmuth


One of the questions I’m most frequently asked about electric vehicles (EV) is: “Are they really a cleaner option?” While it’s obvious that a fully-electric vehicle eliminates tailpipe emissions, people often wonder about the global warming emissions from generating the electricity to charge an EV. The latest data affirms that driving on electricity produces significantly fewer emissions than using gasoline and is getting better over time.

Electricity power plant emissions data for 2018 has just been released and we’ve crunched the latest numbers.  Based on where EVs have been sold, driving the average EV produces global warming pollution equal to a gasoline vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel economy. That’s significantly better than the most efficient gasoline car (58 mpg) and far cleaner than the average new gasoline car (31 mpg) or truck (21 mpg) sold in the US. And our estimate for EV emissions is almost 10 percent lower than our previous estimate two years ago. Now 94 percent of people in the US live where driving an EV produces less emissions than using a 50 mpg gasoline car.

EV emissions are lower across the country

The mpg (miles per gallon) value listed for each region is the combined city/highway fuel economy rating of a gasoline vehicle that would have global warming emissions equivalent to driving an EV. Regional global warming emissions ratings are based on 2018 power plant data in the EPA’s eGRID2018 database (released January 2020). Comparison includes gasoline and electricity fuel production emissions estimates for processes like extraction, transportation, and refining using Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET 2019 model. The 88 mpg US average is a sales-weighted average based on where EVs were sold in 2011 through September 2019.

To compare the climate-changing emissions from electric vehicles to gasoline-powered cars, we analyzed all the emissions from fueling and driving both types of vehicles. For a gasoline car, that means looking at emissions from extracting crude oil from the ground, moving the oil to a refinery, making gasoline and transporting gasoline to filling stations, in addition to combustion emissions from the tailpipe.

For electric vehicles, the calculation includes both power plant emissions and emissions from the production of coal, natural gas and other fuels power plants use. Our analysis relies on emissions estimates for gasoline and fuels production from Argonne National Laboratory (using the GREET2019 model) and power plant emissions data released by the US EPA. The data, released in January 2020, tallied the emissions from US power plants during 2018.

When looking at all these factors, driving the average EV is responsible for fewer global warming emissions than the average new gasoline car everywhere in the US. In some parts of the country, driving the average new gasoline car will produce 4 to 7 times the emissions of the average EV.  For example, the average EV driven in upstate New York has emissions equal to a (hypothetical) 231 mpg gasoline car. And in California, a gasoline car would need to get 122 mpg to have emissions as low as the average EV.

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