Whether you’re zipping to the supermarket or striking out for a weekend getaway, owning a car makes it easy to get there on your own terms. But road transportation generates 15% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and personal vehicles are responsible for over half of that.
Gasoline is a major driver of the Joro community’s carbon footprints, too: in 2020, gasoline was one of the top three purchases that contributed most to our carbon footprints. That means it’s also one of our biggest levers for impact.
New research shows that shifting to electrified transport is essential to achieving global 2050 carbon reduction targets. As renewables become cheaper and clean up the grid, electric cars are emerging as a critical tool to reduce emissions.
So, are electric cars really that green? This guide unpacks what you need to know before you ditch your old gas-guzzler and bite the bullet on a new electric vehicle (EV).
Principles: What Makes a Car Sustainable?
When it comes to sustainable car ownership, there’s more to consider than fuel economy. The environmental impact of a car depends on three key factors:
Production: Energy Required to Manufacture
Manufacturing a new car is resource intensive. By the time you drive it off the lot, a gas-powered car has already accumulated around one-third of its lifetime carbon footprint.
While EVs emit zero greenhouse gases on the road, they still require energy to produce. In fact, building an average mid-sized EV generates 15% more emissions than its gas-powered equivalent, largely due to electricity used in battery production.
Propulsion: Energy Required to Drive
All vehicles require energy to get you from point A to point B. But some run cleaner than others. Gas-powered vehicles are the worst offenders, emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases each time you get behind the wheel. Hybrid cars are powered by both gasoline and electricity, improving fuel economy and reducing tailpipe emissions.
Electric cars, on the other hand, produce zero direct road emissions, compensating for their additional production footprint in just six to 18 months. While running electric is far better than petroleum, how green electric cars are depends on the grid they’re powered by. In the US, for example, 60% of electricity is generated using fossil fuels, so unless an EV is charged exclusively with solar, for instance, it still has indirect emissions on the road.
Signaling: Systemic Impact
Climate change is a systems problem, and systems are made up of people, so what we signal to others has important implications. Studies show that climate awareness is contagious, which means our choices have impact beyond our personal carbon footprints.
Specifically, the viral nature of climate actions is called the “neighbor effect”. It’s caused by two factors: how we affect the people in our immediate surroundings; and how social standards guide the behavior of a group.
The neighbor effect can be observed by tracking how solar installations spread in a particular community. If just ten households in your zipcode invest in solar panel systems, the chances you or your neighbor will install your own increase by 7.8%.
When we take climate action, we signal to others that sustainability is important and attainable. That’s why the compounding systemic impact of social signaling is an important part of what makes an electric car green.
What to Know: Understanding Your Options
Sustainable car ownership isn’t as simple as purchasing a new EV; the “best” option isn’t one-size-fits-all. But regardless of your budget and lifestyle needs, there are ways to make your time behind the wheel more sustainable.
The following table can help you understand the relative environmental impact of each of your options, so you can make an educated decision about what makes sense for you.
Consider Direct and Systemic Impacts
When making a choice, consider both the direct and systemic impacts of your vehicle.
If it’s possible for you to walk, bike or take public transit more often, not buying a new car might be the right way to lower your direct impact.
If you are going to drive, consider not only the immediate environmental impact of one option versus another, but also the economic and social signal you’re sending with your choice. The higher the demand for electric cars, the greater the incentive for companies to invest in them and for governments to enhance EV infrastructure and financing options.
When You Buy, Buy Used
Eventually, your car will need to be retired. But while a sleek new model might be calling your name, opting for a used vehicle is easier on the planet (and your wallet). By buying used, you avoid consuming additional resources to create something brand new, and instead absorb the sunk environmental costs of a vehicle already in circulation.
Consider Maintaining Your Existing Vehicle
When you extend the lifespan of your current vehicle, you get more out of the resources it took to produce it. And Americans are actually pretty good at this: the average US driver keeps their car for nearly 12 years.
Stay on top of tune-ups to keep your car running longer and cleaner, and consider eco-friendly tires to boost fuel economy. Reduce the overall mileage you put on your car by carpooling, biking, or using public transit as much as possible.
When does it make sense to replace your existing car? As a rule of thumb: when it becomes unsafe to drive, when the cost to repair is more than your vehicle is worth, or when the monthly fuel costs of your old gas guzzler are greater than the monthly payment on a low-emission vehicle.
Making a Choice: Picking the Right Hybrid or EV
If you’ve decided you’re ready to buy a new or used hybrid or EV, it’s time to unpack your options. Ensure you’re satisfied with your final decision by understanding the different types of vehicles on the market and which factors you need to consider.
Pick Your Type
Electric: A 100% electric car is powered by a large electric motor and battery instead of a gas engine. EVs generate zero tailpipe emissions, but must be charged between uses or intermittently on longer trips.
Plug-In Hybrid: Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are the most sustainable hybrid vehicles. PHEVs have large electric batteries that plug into charging stations, just like 100% electric vehicles. A PHEV uses electricity when its battery is charged and switches to gasoline when the battery runs out of juice.
Hybrid: Traditional hybrid vehicles run primarily on gasoline, but generate electricity when you brake. This energy is stored in a small electric motor, and powers the vehicle the next time you accelerate, increasing fuel-efficiency and reducing emissions.
What to Consider When Choosing a Hybrid or EV
Range: How far do you drive on a daily basis? How often do you drive long distances? A fully-charged PHEV can go around 50 miles before it switches to gas, making it attractive for a short commute. For long-haulers, EVs average around 250 miles per charge, and higher-tier models can go even further.
Location: Are electric cars really that green? Yes, but their overall environmental impact depends on where you live and the vehicle's make and model. Explore this EV emissions calculator to see how different vehicles stack up in your zip code.
Up-Front Cost: The initial cost of an EV can be a barrier for some. But while hybrids come with a lower sticker price, fueling and maintaining one will cost you more over time. Ask yourself whether paying up-front or over the lifetime of your vehicle makes the most sense for your financial situation.
Rebates: Many states and federal programs offer tax rebates and incentives to offset the cost of EVs and hybrid vehicles. If you’re based in the US, explore this list of regional incentives to learn how you can make your dollar go further. (East and West coast states are particularly EV friendly!)
Resources: Where to Dive Deeper
Not ready to switch to an EV yet? Knowing how to be a fuel-efficient driver can save you money at the pump. Our top tips for eco-friendly driving can help you extend the lifespan of your vehicle and cut your carbon footprint.
Shopping around? Compare EVs to gas-powered cars in different US zip codes with this calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Folks based in the European Union can explore a similar tool by Transport & Environment.
Are electric cars really that green? Listen and learn with this recent episode on EVs and the environment by the How to Save a Planet podcast.
Looking for the numbers? This report takes an exhaustive look at the environmental impact of EVs and other vehicles over their entire life-cycle.
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