Last year, President Joe Biden set a goal for electric vehicles to make up half of all car sales in the US by 2030. By expanding tax credits for electric vehicles in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration hopes to expand the electric car fleet beyond the current 7 million fully electric or hybrid vehicles in the US.
Although fully electric vehicles don’t release tailpipe emissions, generating electricity used by those vehicles often creates greenhouse gas emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency measures vehicle emissions in three different ways.
Tailpipe emissions account for emissions of both greenhouse gases as well as other pollutants released while operating a vehicle. All-electric vehicles don’t have tailpipe emissions, while gas-powered vehicles have the largest amount.
Well-to-wheel emissions consider tailpipe emissions and all emissions coming from the production, processing, and distribution of the fuel or electricity needed to operate a vehicle.
Life cycle emissions add in the emissions used in the production of the vehicles and their components. For all-electric and hybrid vehicles, this includes the lithium-ion batteries used to store the electricity they run on.
Gas-powered cars produce almost three times as many pounds of well-to-wheel emissions as all-electric vehicles. But all-electric vehicles still produce 3,932 pounds of emissions in an average year. Emissions from plug-in hybrid and hybrid vehicles (which use both gasoline and electricity) produce about 2,000 pounds more in emissions than all-electric vehicles.
The main source of well-to-wheel emissions for all-electric vehicles comes from electricity production. So, depending on the state, all-electric vehicles can rely on low-emission renewable sources of electricity, or high-emission fossil fuel sources.
These figures vary greatly by state. For example, California relies more on natural gas and solar, so the average all-electric vehicle in California produces 2,261 pounds of emissions every year. In West Virginia, which relies heavily on coal for electricity production, the average all-electric vehicle produces 9,146 pounds of CO2 equivalent.
About three-quarters of the life cycle emissions of gas-powered cars are through tailpipe emissions. Around 9% of life cycle emissions come from making the vehicles themselves.
In contrast, while all-electric vehicles produce less than half as much life cycle emissions, about 35% of total greenhouse gas emissions for all-electric vehicles are from either the battery manufacturing process or the manufacturing of the cars. This is due to the higher amounts of greenhouse gases created while mining for lithium needed for the batteries in all-electric vehicles. The remaining 65% of emissions are from electricity production.
While electric vehicles produce less than half as many life cycle emissions as gas-powered cars, the mining required to make the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles produces large amounts of greenhouse gases. About 18% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created by electric vehicles are associated with the battery manufacturing process. About 17% of GHG emissions from electric cars comes from the rest of the manufacturing process. The proportions are significantly different for gas-powered cars. Only 9% of emissions come from the manufacturing process, 17% come from fuel production and distribution and 74% comes from tailpipe emissions during vehicle use.
Learn more about renewable energy with the USAFacts State of the Earth report.
Because of the varying potencies of greenhouse gases the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standardizes the way it measures greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of reporting the actual volume of emissions for each gas, it tracks the volume of carbon dioxide that would have the same effect on the atmosphere.
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