With no tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles (EVs) are widely considered a cleaner choice over gas-powered cars. Yet concerns over a vehicle’s lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, which take into consideration pollution from elements such as harvesting the materials to generating fuel, have drawn criticism. According to a recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report, the total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions savings from a small electric SUV versus its gas-powered counterpart are significant. They will grow increasingly so as EVs gain market share.
The report examined both the vehicles’ cradle-to-grave emissions and their well-to-wheels impact. Well-to-wheels emissions include all things fuel-related—production, processing, and distribution. For example, if an EV charges on a coal-powered grid, this could consist of the mining, manufacturing, and burning coal in its emissions. A cradle-to-grave assessment goes one step further by adding all emissions produced during vehicle manufacturing.
The DOE report found that during its entire lifecycle, a 2020 battery electric vehicle (BEV) with 300 miles of range (BEV300) emits 206 grams of greenhouse gas (GHG) when charging on the average U.S. grid mix. However, a gasoline-powered small SUV produced more than double that of the EV—an average of 420 g CO2/mi.
The news gets even better in the future as the domestic electricity grid becomes increasingly powered by renewable energy. Under these conditions, a BEV300 manufactured in 2050 is estimated to emit only 43 g CO2e per mile.
The findings are in line with a 2015 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which argues that for the United States to impact the adverse effects of climate change by 2050, it would need to develop a clean electrical grid and bring EV fleets to scale. According to the UCS, if the country’s grid were powered by 80-percent renewable energy, a BEV’s lifecycle emissions would be 60-percent lower than the BEV of today. In 2020, only 20 percent of the country’s electricity was from renewable sources.
The UCS study also projects that as automakers increase BEV production, the industry will uncover new efficiencies. It points to improvements such as recent advances in battery technology, manufacturing refinement, and facilities powered by renewable energy. Since the UCS study, manufacturers from BMW to Toyota have invested in battery technology, and companies like Nissan and Polestar have committed to company-wide carbon neutrality.
Automakers are also beginning to produce vehicle lifecycle assessments to help consumers make a fully informed purchase. Volvo Cars, which aims to be a carbon-neutral company by 2040, evaluated its internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered XC40 against the XC40 Recharge, which is fully electric. The study found that the Recharge had a lower carbon footprint than its ICE counterpart in all areas.
A similar study by Volkswagen (VW) compared its all-electric e-Golf to the diesel-powered Golf. VW found that in its production, the e-Golf’s carbon footprint peaks during manufacturing due to the battery. “You quickly realize that compared to a Golf diesel, the e-Golf has a greater carbon footprint in terms of production,” says Marko Gernuks, Volkswagen’s Head of Life Cycle Optimization. “After 125,000 kilometers on the road, it surpasses its brother and has a lower carbon footprint.”