The Environmental Impact of EVs Compared To ICE Vehicles

Electric vehicles are a great alternative to gas and diesel powered cars for many drivers. They also offer environmental benefits. However, as with any transportation method, even other “zero emissions” options, there are some negative environmental effects. So it’s important to look at the whole picture. Let’s take a look at this topic by breaking this down into five sections: Lithium mining versus oil drilling, EV power sources versus gas and diesel, emissions and their effect, safety, and manufacturing, materials, waste and lifespan.

Lithium Mining Versus Oil Drilling

The negative environmental effects from the mining of lithium and other battery related materials are often mentioned first when an anti-EV viewpoint is discussed. Yes, it’s true that all mining does have a negative impact on the environment, including lithium mining. Depending on the material and the specific process at each mine there are various impacts. These include water use, water and ground contamination, wildlife displacement, and other concerns. The truth is that the mining industry is a dirty industry that pollutes and lithium mines generally aren’t an exception. However, not all mines are equal.

A lithium mine in Argentina
A lithium mine in Argentina
Image source: Planet Labs, Inc., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, there is a lithium extraction process which can remove lithium from brine. One plan is to extract lithium from the hot brine beneath the Salton Sea in California. The process would be powered by geothermal plants for emissions free power. Part of the revenue from the project would fund the restoration of the lake which was destroyed by toxic runoff from farms. So there is hope for a cleaner process, but for now there are concerns with mining for these materials just as there are for any mining or extraction process, including oil drilling.

There is one big difference though – lithium is mined once and reused. Oil is drilled, processed, burned into the air, and drilled again. Every part of the process has a negative effect on the environment including the air, ground, and water. Oil spills, flaring (burning off natural gas), wildlife disruption, and other impacts are often ignored by EV naysayers while at the same time they complain about lithium mining – often from a lithium powered device. The oil industry has very effective lobbying power which trickles down into politics and therefore, social and political views. For years they have pushed the negative narrative surrounding EV manufacturing while downplaying the impact of their own industry.

Oil wells in southern California
Oil wells in southern California
Source: Antandrus at English Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons

According to studies EVs are cleaner than ICE vehicles, even with manufacturing and mining considered. According to the EPA’s Electric Vehicle Myths page – “The greenhouse gas emissions associated with an electric vehicle over its lifetime are typically lower than those from an average gasoline-powered vehicle, even when accounting for manufacturing.” According to the US Department of Energy’s Electric Vehicle Basics publication (pdf), emissions from EVs are about one third of the emissions from an ICE vehicle on average.

Power Sources

Gas and Diesel vehicles are known to be inefficient and pollute at high levels. In ICE vehicles, typically only 12-30% of the energy in fuel is actually used to move the vehicle. The rest of the energy is lost with the majority simply being turned into heat and/or being burned off into the air. With the energy source being oil, there is very little room for improvement or better alternatives. 

EVs are approximately 85-95% efficient with lost energy turning into heat. They are powered by electricity, so the sources vary. Many EV owners are environmentally conscious and choose to have solar panels installed at their home, however, not everyone can or will make that choice. So let’s look at the average situation in the United States instead. In 2020 power came from the following sources: 60.6% fossil fuels (natural gas 40.5%, coal 19.3%, others 1.1%), nuclear 19.7%, renewables 19.8% (wind 8.4%, hydro 7.3% solar 2.3%, others 3.3%) other sources 0.3%. So let’s take a look at the first thing that EV detractors will mention: coal – the dirtiest of the bunch. At 19.3% of our power, surely this is not a good thing, right? Sure coal is not an ideal source of power when the goal is cleaner energy, but it is cleaner than gas or diesel? Studies have shown that even when EVs are charged off of a mostly coal power grid such as those in less developed areas, their emissions (emissions from the power source) are lower than ICE vehicles.

In addition to this information, we must consider that the energy grid is becoming greener all the time. Sure, people knock green energy and generally point to the Texas outage in 2021. The truth is that green power sources including wind and solar operate in some of the most extreme environments on earth. In the case of Texas, most of the outage was actually caused by fossil fuel plants including natural gas failing due to lack of preparation for the cold. Green energy works, and it’s only a matter of time before our grid is mostly, if not all zero emissions. Even nuclear power is a great and clean source of power that gets an undeserved bad reputation. Generally nuclear power is safe, especially in modern times in the US. Nuclear plants in the US are not built like Chernobyl. There has never been a single death in the United States from a nuclear power plant.

Electric vehicles at a solar powered charging station
Electric vehicles at a solar powered charging station
Source: Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond energy providers, more people are adding solar to their homes as well driving faster change in the right direction. For these reasons, EVs will get cleaner over time whereas ICE vehicles won’t get significantly cleaner than they are today. With EVs you have choices. With ICE your choice is gas or diesel, there is no alternative – and you certainly can’t make your own at home unless you want to make some biodiesel yourself (and if you do, please be careful!)… and sure, biodiesel is slightly better than regular diesel, but not much.

Emissions and Their Effect

Exhaust fumes from internal combustion engines contain many deadly compounds including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter mostly consisting of soot. In addition to these other compounds released include known carcinogens such as arsenic, benzene, nickel, benzo[a]pyrene, 1,3-butadiene, and formaldehyde. In short, exhaust fumes are poisonous and dangerous.

Every year people die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. An EV is always safe in an enclosed environment because it does not have any exhaust fumes. You can warm up your EV in your garage without any problems – don’t try that with an ICE vehicle. Air quality issues related to ICE vehicle emissions shorten lifespans and cause many health problems.

The only emissions associated with EVs are from their power sources and manufacturing. As we already discussed, these emissions are lower than from ICE vehicles. ICE vehicles are not efficient, especially when compared with power plants. EVs make up for their manufacturing very quickly when driving is factored in. ICE vehicles never make up for their manufacturing, they are constant sources of pollution no matter how efficient or clean they claim to be. After all, their only power source is fossil fuel directly burned in a small and inefficient engine.

"Rolling coal" - Exhaust from a modified diesel pickup truck
“Rolling coal” – Exhaust from a modified diesel pickup truck
Image source: Salvatore Arnone, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Manufacturing, Materials, Waste, and Lifespan

Manufacturing is another industry that is known to pollute in various ways. Even a “green powered” factory will pollute to some degree. Processes such as painting will always have harmful chemicals involved and mitigation such as air filters only go so far. So while they may not have emissions from power sources, there are other forms of pollution taking place. This is true of any type of vehicle manufacturing factory. 

All vehicles are eventually going to end up at the end of their life at some point. This makes considering the materials and lifespan worth discussing. Many people will bring up lithium batteries again and suggest that these batteries won’t last long and will end up in landfills. The truth is that batteries last a long time, generally outlasting ICE vehicle engines. In the US EVs come with a battery warranty that is a minimum of 8 years or 100,000 miles and some companies offer even better warranties. After the batteries get to the point that they need replacement, the lithium and other materials are recycled and reused. The lithium is very valuable and doesn’t “go bad” or get used up like combustable fuels. So there is a lot of incentive to recycle EV batteries. This isn’t some far off plan either. Recycling programs are already in place and EV batteries are currently recycled, including 100% of all used Tesla batteries.

Fires

When evaluating EV safety and environmental impact, fires are often mentioned. Although EV fires are extremely rare when compared to ICE vehicle fires, fires are often mentioned as a negative aspect of EVs. Simply put, the risk of fire is significantly higher in ICE vehicles (up to 100 times higher). ICE vehicle fires are actually very common and it’s not rare to see a burning ICE vehicle on the side of the road. It is true however, that once an EV battery is on fire, it will usually take longer than an ICE vehicle fire to extinguish. This means that more water is used and firefighters generally spend more time on scene. That being said, because EVs are less likely to catch fire in the first place, a switch to EVs may actually reduce overall time responding to vehicles fires.

A gas powered vehicle burns in Oregon (2006)
A gas powered vehicle burns in Oregon (2006)
Source: Wing-Chi Poon, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

So now that we’ve had a look at the various effects that each type of vehicle has on our environment, we can confidently state that yes, EVs are cleaner than ICE vehicles. Are they perfect? No, but they work well for most people and are cleaner than ICE vehicles. Air quality affects everyone. Every time someone chooses an EV over an ICE vehicle it reduces air pollution. So even if you don’t believe in climate change, everyone can at least agree on breathing cleaner air.

Interested in learning about more reasons to switch to an electric vehicle? Check out our article on the benefits of EVs.