Transportation emissions are a major contributor to total global greenhouse gas emissions; in 2016, emissions from transportation comprised 28% of US CO2 emissions, and just over 20% of global carbon emissions. While some of these emissions of course come from transportation of goods that we can’t control, a large proportion of them come from individual drivers transporting themselves and their families. Obviously, one of the most talked about solutions to these emissions is making a switch to an electric vehicle.
When I calculated my carbon emissions back in one of my early posts, I estimated that my total carbon emissions are likely around 40 tons per year. If I plug in my car’s fuel efficiency and my total miles driven per year (around 7,000 miles) into this online calculator, I get an estimate that my driving contributes about 2.2 tons of carbon emissions per year. This is pretty significant (about 5.5 percent of my total emissions), and it’s a big proportion of the emissions I feel like I can control (that is, emissions that aren’t largely determined by where I live, like electricity).
So, from an emissions standpoint, how should we think about the environmental impact of buying an electric car? Because the manufacture and adoption of electric vehicles are so clearly motivated by a desire to reduce emissions, there’s happily been a lot written about this. One of the most important calculations related to electric cars is so-called “well-to-wheels” emissions, which take into account the emissions related to manufacture of the car, as well as the emissions generated by driving the car.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (which I’ll refer to as UCS) has done a lot of really important and useful research into this topic. They have published several reports over the years tracking the environmental benefits of purchasing an electric car; their most recent report, published in 2015, suggests that the lifetime emissions of an electric car are approximately half of a conventional combustion engine, and that two-thirds of Americans live in an area where emissions of an electric car are less than nearly all other transportation options. This proportion has improved recently with the increased “greening” of the electrical grid, as we learned about! The UCS also compiled their findings into a handy calculator that you can use to calculate your carbon emissions per mile depending on your regional electricity production method (this does not include manufacture-related carbon costs). For a gasoline powered car, they estimate emissions 381 grams of CO2 per mile (for me, driving 7000 miles a year, this comes out to 2.9 tons of carbon emissions, which is pretty close to that 2.2 ton estimate I mentioned before). Based on the composition of energy production in the Northwest region, their calculator estimates that my emissions would drop to only 108 grams per mile. (And, since we get our electricity through Seattle City Light, which is 100% renewable, our actual emissions would be even lower.)
There are definitely additional considerations to electric cars; it’s true that their manufacturing processes are significantly more energy intensive than producing conventional vehicles. That same report from the UCS found that for electric vehicles with big, beefy, long-range batteries, manufacturing emissions can be up to 68% higher. Additionally, there are real environmental concerns with the mining of the rare metals that are needed to make the lithium batteries that electric cars depend on. And depending on where you live, a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests the time of day that you charge your car can have major impacts on its net carbon emissions. Given these considerations, it’s a mistake to think that electric cars are a magic bullet that won’t have major implications of their own, beyond carbon emissions. Additionally, electric vehicles are out of reach for many consumers, either because of their high price or because of specific driving needs (like requiring a truck for your work- although a new electric pickup is coming on the market soon). But given what we know about the problems with continued high carbon emissions, I truly believe that electric vehicles are a key part of the solution.
My main argument against getting an electric car for a long time has been that we use our car mostly for outdoors excursions on the weekend and running errands around town. An electric car would work great for errand running, but not so well for outdoor expeditions. But, in researching this post, I looked up what electric cars are on the market or are coming out soon. Interestingly, one of the top rated cars is the Hyundai Kona electric (which Car and Driver and Tom’s Guide gave very high ratings to), which is a small SUV-style car with a 258 mile range and a ~$38,000 price tag. I could imagine taking that up the mountains for a weekend, potentially. Additionally, if you do happen to be in the market for more of a running-errands-around-town car, Consumer Reports suggested at the end of last year that this is a great time to buy a used electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid.
I’m not quite ready to take the plunge on an electric car, especially since our car is only a few years old, but when we’re in the market for a new car, I will not be buying another gasoline powered car. Hopefully, the market will swing that way overall; while currently electric vehicles only comprise a tiny fraction (around 1%) of the market, it seems possible we are at an inflection point in the S-curve of adoption and could have a much larger adoption of electric cars in the near future.
The Wikipedia article on electric cars is pretty great
This Scientific American article discusses how your electricity source affects how clean your electric car can be