Are Electric Vehicles Better for the Environment?

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Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insurance...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years

UPDATED: Aug 4, 2021

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What You Should Know

  • Research has shown electric vehicles are better for the environment
  • Although electric cars are greener than gasoline-powered cars, they still have an environmental impact
  • Hybrids are not as green as electric vehicles but are still much better than conventional cars

Global Climate Change is having observable effects on the environment, including higher temperatures, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels. If you’re looking for ways to do your part in the fight against climate change, you may be considering changing your choice of vehicle from a gasoline car to a hybrid or electric car.

After all, tailpipe emissions are the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and General Motors and other automakers have pledged to put an end to gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.1 

But how do today’s electric cars stack up against their traditional competitors? Are electric cars better for the environment?

The short answer is yes. In this guide, we’ll discuss the technology behind electric vehicles, the environmental impact of their lithium-ion batteries, and the nitty-gritty of how 100% electric and hybrid vehicles stack up against gas-powered autos.

The Research on Electric Vehicles

First things first: let’s dive into the data on electric vehicles.

Congressional research was conducted to determine whether electric cars are better for the environment.2 It found that:

  • An electric vehicle emits fewer pollutants than a gasoline or diesel car even when their production and electricity consumption are considered.
  •  Pure electric cars have no tailpipe, which means they produce no CO2 emissions. This considerably reduces air pollution and makes our roads safer and cleaner for cyclists and pedestrians. 
  • Replacing just one conventional car with an electric vehicle saves an average of 1.5 million grams of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere.3
  • An electric vehicle is also much quieter than a conventional gasoline car. Therefore, electric cars reduce noise pollution, especially in cities and towns with lower speed limits.

Electric cars aren’t just better for the planet—they’re also better for your neighborhood.

This can be plenty of motivation to make the switch. However, curious shoppers will also want to know about the limitations of these vehicles.

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How Does Electric Car Production Affect the Planet?

Although electric cars are greener than fossil fuel-based ones, there is still an environmental impact due to their production and the electricity used to charge them.

Next, we’ll cover the components and processes that may still contribute to climate change.

Batteries

How do electric cars work? These vehicles run on lithium-ion batteries. 

To produce an EV battery, manufacturers use raw materials such as cobalt, lithium, and other rare earth elements which have both environmental and human rights concerns. 

  • Most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and studies have found that it can have hazardous effects on the nearby environment.4 Human exposure is another concern, especially in children.5 Extracting cobalt requires a process called smelting, which can release even more toxic gas into the air and contribute to air pollution.
  • Lithium is mined from hard rock pegmatites in Australia and from brine lake deposits in South America (mostly in Chile). These extractions produce a large amount of groundwater, which has been responsible for local ecosystem degradation. This process has also forced locals to abandon ancestral settlements and migrate elsewhere due to water scarcity.6

Automakers are trying to find ways of working with these international mines to provide safe conditions for miners and lessen their carbon footprint. The global community is also searching for a way to make batteries that do not rely on these materials.7

Electrical Grids

Some of the electricity used to charge electric cars is created by burning coal, which can significantly impact the environment because it also releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. 

But other electrical grids across the country are powered by renewable energy power plants, and there’s a global effort to make electricity generation greener by shifting to alternative sources such as:8

  • Natural gas
  • Wind
  • Solar power 

On average, an electric vehicle will produce less greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional car, and this margin can be expected to improve in the years to come as technology continues to advance. Since an electric car refuels with electricity rather than gas, when comparing the cost of electric cars vs. gas cars, know that you will save money on gas while also emitting fewer fossil fuels. 

Recycling

Another concern with electric vehicles is what to do with the EV battery at the end of its life cycle.

Currently, only about 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, with the rest piling up in landfills. With more electric cars on the road, this will only increase.

Experts say that the metals inside the batteries could be recovered and reused to make new batteries, or the battery itself could be used for another purpose.9

Are Hybrid Cars Just as Good for the Environment?

Hybrid electric vehicles combine an electric motor with a traditional fuel engine and produce some vehicle emissions while driving, though significantly fewer emissions than conventional cars.

How green a hybrid car is depends on how many miles are driven on electric power, as well as where the vehicle is charged and how that electricity is produced. Generally, a hybrid is not as green as a pure electric vehicle, but it is better than a conventional car.

Aside from the environmental impacts, when shopping for a hybrid or electric vehicle, keep in mind that the answer to “Are hybrid cars more expensive to insure?” is usually yes. This may not always be the case, but it is important to consider before buying one.

Insure Your Electric or Hybrid Car with 4AutoInsuranceQuote

So, are electric cars better for the environment? After examining all factors, the only conclusion is that electric cars are indeed an improvement over their fossil fuel-based counterparts. For those wondering about the differences in hydrogen vs. electric cars as well, know that both cars can remarkably reduce carbon emissions. 

Once you’ve made the switch to improve your carbon footprint and your community, keep up the good work by taking out appropriate car insurance. Adequate coverage ensures that all parties are taken care of in the event of bodily injury or property damage.

Don’t want to waste time shopping for quotes? At 4AutoInsuranceQuote, we do the research for you. Just input your ZIP code, make and model, and a few other details, and we’ll compare the rates in your area so that you can get the coverage you need.

References:

  1. The New York Times. “G.M. Will Sell Only Zero-Emission Vehicles by 2035.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/business/gm-zero-emission-vehicles.html
  2. Congressional Research Service. “Environmental Effects of Battery Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles” https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R46420.pdf
  3. EDF. “Benefits of Electric Cars on the Environment.” https://www.edfenergy.com/for-home/energywise/electric-cars-and-environment
  4. Journal of Cleaner Production. “Management of mineral processing tailings and metallurgical slags of the Congolese copperbelt: Environmental stakes and perspectives.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959652618335340
  5. NIH. National Library of Medicine. “High human exposure to cobalt and other metals in Katanga, a mining area of the Democratic Republic of Congo.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19486963/
  6. IOP Science. “Socio-environmental impacts of lithium mineral extraction.” https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aae9b1
  7. The New York Times. “How Green Are Electric Vehicles?” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/electric-vehicles-environment.html
  8. National Resources Defense Council. “Build a Clean Power Grid.” https://www.nrdc.org/issues/build-clean-power-grid
  9. Chemical & Engineering News. “It’s time to get serious about recycling lithium-ion batteries.” https://cen.acs.org/materials/energy-storage/time-serious-recycling-lithium/97/i28
  10. NASA Global Climate Change. “The Effects of Climate Change.” https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/
  11. The International Panel on Climate Change. “Global Warming of 1.5 °C” https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

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