Why are electric vehicles more climate friendly than conventional vehicles?

All-electric vehicles are more climate friendly than gasoline or diesel vehicles because producing the electricity needed for power generates lower emissions than burning fossil fuels. But EVs are far from emissions-free, which is why environmental advocates highlight that walking and biking are the most climate friendly forms of transportation, followed by public transit.

The extent of the advantage for EVs varies depending on the emissions in the local power grid, so an EV in a region that relies heavily on coal to produce electricity, like the Midwest, would have more emissions than one in a place that has more renewable energy, like California. The Union of Concerned Scientists is among the organizations that have done research that compared emissions from EVs and gasoline vehicles and showed some of the regional differences.

Researchers also have also done comparisons that take into account the emissions from obtaining raw materials and manufacturing EVs and gasoline vehicles. Transportation & Environment, a Belgian nonprofit, took this approach to looking at emissions from vehicles in Europe. The organization found that EVs have lower emissions than gasoline and diesel vehicles, but also that there were big variations from country to country. For example, an EV has less of an emissions advantage over a gasoline-powered vehicle in Poland because that country’s electricity grid has unusually high emissions.

As the electricity grid gets cleaner, the climate benefits of EVs are increasing. The combination of rising EV use and a transition to clean sources of electricity are essential to reducing emissions enough to stave off the most destructive effects of climate change. 

Dan Gearino

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