Once only championed by a small collection of environmentalists and tech enthusiasts, electric vehicles (EVs) are now firmly in the mainstream. EVs will likely account for 18% of global car sales in 2023, a 35% year-over-year increase.
But as popular as EVs have become, public perception of the technology suffers from misconceptions that have many questioning EVs’ eco-friendliness.
So—are electric vehicles good for the environment? Keep reading to find out.
Are EVs good for the environment?
The short answer is that Electric vehicles (EVs) are much better for the environment than those powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs). A recent congressional report found that EVs have significantly lower global warming potential, volatile organic compounds emissions, carbon monoxide emissions, nitrogen oxide emissions, and black carbon emissions than conventional vehicles over their lifecycle. They also have lower fossil fuel consumption and total fuel consumption.
That said, the manufacturing and use of EVs do have environmental consequences. The sources of power they use, the batteries they depend on, and the manufacturing methods necessary to build them all generate certain levels of pollution. It’s important to note that EVs—and renewable energy, in general—aren’t perfect solutions to our environmental challenges. Instead, they are effective alternative ways of meeting society’s transportation and energy needs that come with their own downsides.
Top 3 misconceptions about EVs and the environment
Misconception #1: Questionable power sources prevent EVs from being eco-friendly
Question: EVs don’t emit greenhouse gases or even have tailpipes, but their fuel can still harm the environment. Unless the electricity the vehicles run on is produced through entirely renewable means—like solar or wind power—EVs can still contribute to pollution indirectly through energy consumption. How can EVs be good for the environment when the energy production system they depend on creates emissions?
Answer: Indeed, EV energy consumption isn’t totally green, but it is significantly better for the planet than traditional gas-powered vehicles. Compiling data covering the entire lifecycle, including the environmental impact of electricity production, this interactive graph developed by researchers at MIT compares the greenhouse emissions produced by EVs and gas-powered vehicles. Although both categories contribute to pollution, EVs score much lower than those that run on fossil fuels.
Misconception #2: Poor battery recycling rates make EVs an environmental threat
Question: EVs run on specialized lithium-ion batteries that are challenging to recycle—much harder than the lead-acid batteries that power conventional vehicles. In fact, the recycling rate for lead-acid batteries in the US is an impressive 99%, while some sources put the recycling rate of lithium-ion batteries as low as one-twentieth of that figure. How can EVs be environmentally friendly if their batteries cannot be effectively recycled?
Answer: EV batteries can be recycled, and the efficiency of these methods is improving rapidly. For years, automakers and technology companies around the world have been aware of this challenge and have been actively researching how to improve recycling methods. Although existing approaches can already achieve a recycling rate of 60% for lithium-ion batteries, that may increase soon: The German carmaker VW, for example, is developing a new process that will push the recycling rate as high as 95%.
But even if these innovative methods aren’t adopted, studies that take into account the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries still find that EVs produce far fewer emissions than gasoline-powered vehicles. Research by the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) revealed that the average European EV produces 50% fewer greenhouse gases over the first 150,000 km of operation than traditional vehicles.
Misconception #3: Wasteful manufacturing practices mean EVs are not environmentally sustainable
Question: EVs may be better for the environment when they get on the road, but that is only part of the picture when it comes to environmental impact. Manufacturing EVs creates high levels of pollution, largely because sourcing some of the specialized materials needed to produce EVs—including rare earth metals like nickel and lithium—currently requires destructive mining practices. How can EVs be environmentally friendly if manufacturing them is harder on the planet than building gas-powered vehicles?
Answer: Existing EV manufacturing methods generate higher emissions than conventional vehicle production, but EVs leave gas-powered vehicles in the dust when the math accounts for the entire lifecycle. A recent study by the ICCT found that despite the carbon deficit created by current EV manufacturing processes, EVs matched the carbon footprint of their fossil-fueled counterparts within two years or less. Since EV batteries last between 10 and 20 years, electric cars and trucks are much more environmentally friendly in the long run.
Supporting the growing popularity of EVs
With transportation as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US economy, EV adoption is critical to reducing our carbon footprint. Fortunately, the market demand for these eco-friendly vehicles is exploding, so a future where electric is the standard doesn’t seem as far off as it did just a few years ago.
But as exciting as this transition is from an environmental perspective, there are still infrastructural challenges that need to be solved to open the door for widespread EV usage. Charging stations will need to be much more common, and CPOs need to support their hardware with robust EV charger management software. Setting the standard for innovation in this space, ChargeLab’s best-in-class EV charging management software has helped leading companies like Mobil, Ford Motors, and Hilton improve their EV operations. Explore our solution page to learn what ChargeLab could do for you.