Study suggests EVs really are cleaner than gas-powered cars over their lifespan

The conclusion was the same in countries that rely on coal-powered grids.

JENS SCHLUETER via Getty Images

The lifetime emissions of an electric car versus a gasoline vehicle has become an intensely debated topic for governments. A new study that compares the climate impact of passenger cars could play a pivotal role in the argument. The report claims that electric cars produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions "from the cradle to the grave" than their gas-guzzling counterparts. According to the study, the core result is the same globally, even when applied to countries like China and India, where the majority of the electricity to recharge an EV comes from coal.

The findings are a rebuke for voices in the automotive and oil lobbying industries that still claim that electric cars are no cleaner than gas-powered vehicles. It arrives as governments are trying to cement their environmental policies in line with the Paris Agreement. Finalized in 2015, the climate change accord saw 143 countries, including the US, agree to limit global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius. To help meet that target, Washington state and California have proposed banning the sale of new gasoline cars from 2030 and 2035, respectively.

The study conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) examined the entire life-cycles of EVs and gasoline cars, from extracting raw materials to production to their eventual disposal. Researchers examined the greenhouse gas emissions from the vehicle and fuel types in four territories that together account for 70 percent of new car sales worldwide: the US, the EU, China and India.

For cars registered in 2021, the report found that lifetime emissions for a medium-sized EV in Europe are between 66 and 69 percent lower compared to that of a gasoline vehicle in the same category. In the US, an EV produces between 60 to 68 percent fewer emissions. In China, an EV results in between 37 to 45 percent fewer emissions. In India, it’s between 19 to 34 percent lower.

By 2030, the gap between EVs and gas-guzzlers is tipped to increase to 74 percent to 77 percent in Europe, 62 percent to 76 percent in the US, 48 percent to 64 percent in China, and 30 percent to 56 percent in India.

Notably, the researchers assume that a vehicle will be on the road for around 18 years. They also state that the gap between the figures reflects the uncertainty around how the energy mix in each region develops, which itself is tied to future policies.

“One important result of the analysis is to show that life-cycle emissions trends are similar in all four regions, despite the differences among them in vehicle mix, grid mix, and so on. Already for cars registered today, [battery electric vehicles] have better relative [greenhouse gas] emissions performance everywhere than conventional vehicles,” said ICCT deputy director Rachel Muncrief.

There are still caveats, however. Though EVs cut back on carbon emissions over time, they inevitably take a toll on the environment. By one recent estimate, you'll need to drive a new EV thirteen and a half thousand miles before you're doing less harm than a gas-guzzling saloon.