Electric Vehicles: Not a One-Shot Solution to Climate Change — Are EVs Really the Greener Solution?

Electric vehicles (EVs) have experienced a tremendous rise in popularity over the last decade. Today, they represent a growing phenomenon within the automotive industry. This surge in interest can be largely attributed to advancements in technology, increased environmental awareness, and the desire for a more sustainable future with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

According to BloombergNEF’s 2022 Electric Vehicle Outlook, the market size of EVs would represent $53 Trillion by 2050, representing a significant shift away from traditional combustion-engine vehicles. [1]

With this rapid transformation comes an array of questions about the true sustainability of electric vehicles over their lifetime. Are EVs truly “greener” than their combustion counterparts? In order to assess this, we must examine both the advantages and disadvantages of each type of vehicle-based on various aspects. This article takes a deep dive into manufacturing processes, fuel source pollution levels during operation, and end-of-life battery management practices, among others.

Ways Traditional Vehicles Damage The Environment

To effectively evaluate whether electric vehicles present a lower carbon footprint, it is essential to have a solid understanding of how internal combustion engines (ICE) impact our environment.


Gas vs EV, which is greener?


Combustion Engines and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Fuel combustion emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to global warming. According to data released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation accounted for nearly 29% of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 – making it the largest sectoral contributor over other industries that year. [2] Most of these emissions can be traced back to vehicles operating with combustion engines that burn gasoline or diesel fuel.

Electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions during operation, meaning they do not directly release greenhouse gases. Despite variance in powertrain designs for electric cars (battery electric or fuel cell), they tend to have similar emission profiles due to their lack of tailpipe output.

Fossil Fuel Production and Distribution

Additionally, there are negative environmental impacts related to fossil fuel extraction procedures like drilling and mining, including water pollution incidents and habitat destruction incidents for surrounding ecosystems. [3] The transportation and distribution of fossil fuels also harm the environment due to additional emissions generated during transportation by tanker trucks or pipeline networks. This makes the process even more carbon-intensive due to the distance traveled before combustion occurs. It is worth mentioning these fuel extraction methods can lead to extreme consequences such as oil spills, contaminating vast areas of the natural environment.

Non-exhaust Emissions

Moreover, traditional vehicles emit non-exhaust pollution sources such as particulate matter from tire wear and brake dust. These emissions are classified as nanoparticles that can negatively affect both air quality and human health. Naturally, EV vehicles will also emit non-exhaust pollution sources since components like tires and brakes will still wear out.


On balance, EVs are still greener over the life of a vehicle, although it varies depending on where the vehicle is operated. In areas with grids running off coal-burning powerplants, the advantage of EVs is reduced. The manufacturing of batteries is also a big variable.


How Electric Vehicles Might Be Greener

The accelerating adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is widely seen as an essential step toward reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. However, EVs have a complicated environmental impact that isn’t always clear. Although the emissions associated with electric vehicles largely depend on the source of their electricity production, there are still several factors to consider when evaluating their overall green credentials over their lifetime. In contrast to traditional combustion vehicles, electric vehicles (EVs) have a vastly different supply chain.

But … Battery Production and Raw Material Mining

Key among EV-related environmental concerns is battery production and mining of raw materials like cobalt and lithium. These processes require a vast amount of energy-intensive steps and frequently contribute to water pollution and habitat destruction. For example, cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been linked to human rights abuses, including child labor. [4] Moreover, extracting lithium often leads to significant water consumption in regions where fresh water is already scarce. These ethical considerations influence perceptions about the true “green” credentials of electric vehicles.

Battery production mainly involves mining raw materials, refining them into usable forms, then assembling them into battery cells that store electrical energy. According to McKinsey, battery production can create up to 100 kg of CO2-equivalent emissions per kilowatt-hour (kWh) capacity. [5]

Gigafactories and Renewable Energy

The amount of emissions associated with battery production can be reduced by the location of the manufacturing plants. China is currently the world leader in producing EV batteries, and many of its production facilities use coal-powered energy to power their operations. For reference, there are an estimated 93 Gigafactories in China, compared to a mere four in the United States. [5]

However, Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 in Nevada has been powered by renewable energy since 2017 and is now one of the largest such factories on Earth. Elon Musk has even gone so far as to say that it can be powered entirely by solar energy [6]. The shift towards renewables reduces the emissions generated by battery production and makes electric vehicles even greener.

Offsetting Battery Production Emissions Over Time

Critics argue that the substantial initial emissions related to battery manufacturing may offset potential savings gained through reduced tailpipe emissions during usage. Yet recent research has found that EVs typically compensate for their higher up-front carbon footprint within just a few years of operation. A study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) contends that electric cars generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their combustion engine counterparts over their lifecycle by:

  • 66%–69% in Europe
  • 60%–68% in the United States
  • 37%–45% in China
  • 19%–34% in India [7]

What’s the balanced view? Over the lifetime of a vehicle, is EV better than gas for green? On balance, yes.

Battery Disposal & Recycling

The environmental impact of EVs doesn’t end when the car’s useful life does. Lithium-ion batteries typically last 8-10 years, so given increasing EV adoption rates, we can expect a significant influx of end-of-life batteries in the coming decades. Unfortunately, current battery recycling practices are virtually nonexistent, with most discarded batteries winding up in landfills. But this is beginning to change. Several countries, including China and the UK, have already begun investing in battery recycling facilities. And companies like Tesla are working on recyclable batteries, where up to 92% of components can be reused. [8]

Upon reaching end-of-life application within an electric vehicle, battery systems present significant recycling opportunities allowing them to avoid landfill disposal. This would alleviate pressure from finite raw material providers amidst growing demands propelled by increasing consumer interest in greener transportation options worldwide. Additionally, some aged battery components can be repurposed into second-life applications like stationary storage alternatives beyond vehicular operation before eventual recycling occurs. Manufacturers could obtain more value out of each resource until completely exhausted.

Research into solid-state batteries could lead to longer-lasting energy storage with fewer resource demands during production. Meanwhile, innovative recycling methods such as direct cathode recycling offer potential improvements to existing systems.

Grid Strain from Increased EV Use

Although electric vehicles boast zero tailpipe emissions during operation, charging them via grid-connected stations still generates carbon emissions, predominantly because numerous power grids are fueled heavily by fossil sources like coal and natural gas. As a result, it is essential to consider these indirect emissions as part of our assessment surrounding EVs’ overall green credentials.

While increased demand for electricity could necessitate further investments in renewable energy generation and storage systems, potential rises in overall grid emissions from coal-burning power plants could undermine some benefits from switching to electric transport options.

According to Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, it’s simply a matter of making sure that the power grid is optimized for EV usage:

“Currently, the electric vehicle in the US, on average, would emit about 200 grams of CO2 per mile,” he said. “We are projecting that with cleaning up the grid, we can reduce emissions from electric vehicles by 75%, from about 200 (grams) today to about 50 grams of CO2 per mile in 2050.” [9]

The integration of clean energy sources is a crucial step in reducing grid-based carbon emissions associated with EV charging. By incorporating renewable energies into power grids more prevalently, there will be a reduced reliance on coal or natural gas plants resulting in lower greenhouse emissions when recharging cars with cleaner electricity profiles.

A Balanced View: Are Electric Vehicles Really Greener over its Lifetime?

To conclude whether electric vehicles are truly greener over their lifespan versus conventional options, we need to compare multiple factors: production emissions, operating efficiency differences during the use phase, and end-life impacts from disposal or reuse efforts.

Comparing Lifetime Emission Impacts

Multiple studies support claims that electric vehicles produce fewer total emissions than internal combustion engine vehicles, even when factoring in manufacturing and end-of-life processes. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that EVs emit approximately half the greenhouse gases of a comparable gasoline vehicle throughout their lifecycle, further reinforced by the comprehensive ICCT study mentioned earlier. [10]

As advances in battery technology and renewable energy integration come into play, electric vehicles are expected to become even more sustainable over time. More efficient recycling methods will also help reduce battery-related impacts. Moreover, ongoing global efforts toward implementing greener electricity infrastructure hold great promise for minimizing adverse consequences of EV adoption on the grid system.

Electric Vehicles: Not a One-Shot Solution to Climate Change

While electric vehicles are essential tools in reducing transportation-related emissions globally, they alone cannot be seen as a panacea for climate change. As urbanization continues to increase globally, robust public transportation systems and alternative mobility options like carpooling, cycling, or walking will also be necessary. Only by promoting this variety of sustainable transport methods together can we truly address the monumental challenges posed by climate change. [11]


Although there is ample improvement scope regarding electric vehicles’ overall environmental impact over their lifespan, available evidence suggests that they remain a significant step forward. With ongoing research into improvements in battery technology and recycling practices combined with commitments to cleaner energy production worldwide, we can expect electric vehicles to form an increasingly vital role in transitioning toward more sustainable mobility solutions across the globe.



[1] https://about.bnef.com/electric-vehicle-outlook/

[2] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#transportation

[3] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts#sec-burning

[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2023/02/01/1152893248/red-cobalt-congo-drc-mining-siddharth-kara



[7] https://theicct.org/publication/a-global-comparison-of-the-life-cycle-greenhouse-gas-emissions-of-combustion-engine-and-electric-passenger-cars/





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