Do Electric Cars Reduce Pollution? This is How Much


Electric cars have continued to surge in popularity, especially with the world at large placing a stronger emphasis on reducing pollution. There are differing opinions as to how much of a difference electric cars make, but it is unequivocal that they are better for the environment.

Electric cars reduce pollution, as they produce less harmful carbon and byproduct emissions relative to gas-powered vehicles. Electric motors are more efficient at converting electricity from the grid to forward movement compared to a gasoline engine burning fuel. 

At this point, you’re likely wondering how much of a difference there truly is, as well as why the use of electricity produces fewer carbon emissions. We’ll take a stab at answering all of those questions below, as well as a few others. 

Why Do Electric Cars Reduce Pollution?

As stated above, these cars do not require burning gasoline to power the vehicle on a day-to-day basis, so there are no harmful emissions billowing from the tailpipe. With that being said, there are other forms of carbon emissions that still could be involved with the production and development of these cars. Let’s dive into them below.

The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy defines emissions by two categories: Direct and Lifecycle Emissions.

  • Direct Emissions – come from three main sources: directly out of the tailpipe of a gas-powered vehicle, through evaporation in the fuel system, and during the fueling process. Electric vehicles produce zero direct emissions. 
  • Lifecycle emissions – These, on the other hand, are associated with the production of the vehicles and the gasoline that is used to fuel them. 

Both lifecycle and direct emissions release harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases to the environment. 

Transportation is the leading source of climate pollution in the United States, so helping to eliminate those emissions would go a long way in helping fight climate change. That’s not to say that electric cars are perfect. 

What Emissions Are Electric Cars Responsible For?

Electric cars can produce lifecycle emissions from their production as well as the production of the electricity that powers them. With that being said, electric cars still produce far fewer emissions overall, as well as much less lifecycle emissions relative to gas-powered. 

Some studies even show that certain electric vehicles will produce up to 60% fewer emissions than a conventional car, even if they are pulling their electricity from gas-powered plants. 

According to the US Department of Energy, “Electric cars convert over 77% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Conventional gasoline vehicles at only convert about 12% to 30% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels.”

But electric cars take their electricity from coal-fired or other fossil-fuels fired power plants? That is a good point but an electric vehicle’s motor is around 85% to  90% efficient when converting coal-fired energy to power. Compare that to an internal combustion engine car at only 12% to 30% efficiency. Electric cars make a better use of energy.

Overall, electric cars reduce pollution, thanks to producing fewer harmful carbon emissions than those from gas-powered vehicles. 

They don’t stop there, as electric car engines are much quieter than those of standard cars. As a result, the cars themselves are much quieter when being driven than the typical gas-powered vehicle. Which leads to the next question:

Do Electric Cars Reduce Sound Pollution?

The engines of electric cars are designed to be very quiet compared to standard vehicles. So, electric cars do reduce sound pollution. 

As a result, there will be much less of the typical noise that you would hear in an urban area or by a highway with more electric vehicles on the road. 

Benefits of an Electric Car’s Hushed Engine 

Outside of noisy cars being annoying, there have also been studies outlining the negative impact that noise pollution can have on mental health and overall quality of life.

In fact, one study found that people living in areas with higher noise pollution due to traffic were 25% more likely to develop symptoms of depression, among other mental health issues. 

Clearly, electric cars can have even more benefits than strictly just reducing pollution. 

But that’s not to say that the lack of noise comes without risk. 

A Quiet Engine Can Be A Hazard

The quietness of the car could prove dangerous to pedestrians and other drivers, especially in residential areas. With the cars emitting little-to-no sound, they can be hard to detect and can put pedestrians and other drivers at risk of accidents. 

Luckily, there was recently a law passed stating that all electric cars must emit a sound when they are traveling below 18.6 MPH. The law was initially proposed in 2010 but was extended to September of 2020.

This new legislation makes it mandatory for all-electric vehicles to make a noise to warn pedestrians

So, with the fix to that issue in motion, it is fair to wonder whether there are any remaining downsides, from a pollution standpoint, when using electric vehicles.

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Are Electric Cars Bad for the Environment in Any Way?

Electric vehicles will produce more harmful emissions during production than the typical gasoline-powered vehicle. 

The reason is the production of the battery, as it takes a lot more to create a battery that can power an electric vehicle than it does for one for a gasoline-powered vehicle.

However, once electric vehicles are out in the world, they produce far less harmful emissions than standard vehicles. 

Over Time, an Electric Car Makes Up for Emissions During Production

Typically, it will take about 18 months for an electric vehicle to make up for the higher rate of emissions during their production, plus they will continue to produce far fewer emissions over the course of their lifespan. 

The average electric car has fewer emissions than the most efficient fuel-powered car.

This study found that electric vehicles actually produce emissions equal to a gasoline-powered car that gets 88 miles per gallon. This is far better than the most efficient gas-powered vehicle (58mpg) and further illustrates that electric vehicles help to reduce pollution. 

These studies were based on the emissions of an average electric vehicle compared to those of an average gas-powered vehicle. That means there is even more efficiency to be had if you were to seek out the most efficient of the electric vehicles on the market. That efficiency does come at a price, of course.

How Much Does an Electric Car Cost?

If you’re looking to reduce your own carbon footprint and want to look into purchasing an electric vehicle, you’re likely wondering what it will cost you. 

Luckily, Car and Driver made a cost comparison on two cars and their electric counterparts. In studying electric and gas-powered versions of the Mini Cooper and the Hyundai Kona, this is what they found:

  • The Mini Cooper cost an additional $6,500 over the gas version at the initial purchase.  However, the total difference in ownership cost of both vehicles over three years was negligible (less than $400). 
  • The sticker price of the electric Hyundai Kona was nearly $17,000 over that of the gas-powered version. Over the course of three years, savings on the cost of ownership dropped that difference down to $8,000 more for the electric Kona.

In both cases, the reasons the electric cars “caught up” over time were the savings in maintenance costs (35-35%), greatly reduced powering costs (over 50%), and tax credits ($7,500). 

As you can see, overall, the results were fairly close, with the electric vehicle being a bit pricier in each instance. 

For many electric car owners, the long-term benefit of reducing pollution and helping the environment is worth the additional cost. 

Wondering If An Electric Car Is In Your Budget?

There is a useful tool provided by the US Department of Energy that allows you to directly compare vehicles based on your personal use of your car to determine if you would be able to save money with an electric vehicle. 

Reduced Pollution with an Electric Car Is Real – and Affordable

While the initial cost may be a bit higher for electric vehicles at the moment, it is reasonable to assume that the prices will continue to go down as the production of these vehicles improves. This will also lead to a cleaner, more energy-efficient vehicle that will help to fight pollution at an even greater scale.

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Jordan Fromholz

I'm an electric car owner, enthusiast, and founder of the Plugin Report. As a Chemical Engineer with over 14-years in the energy industry, I've made my passions be renewable energy, batteries, and electric cars. My family lives on Maui where we drive our 2017 Nissan Leaf and share everything there is to know about electric cars.

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