Carbon Footprint of Electric Cars vs Gasoline (The Truth No One Admits)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | November 10, 2022

Man sitting on the ground scratching his head looks at a gasoline powered vehicle burning emissions out the tailpipe and an electric car emissions coming from the tailpipe and wonders about the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline, while a woman ponders electric car carbon footprint.

Many people wonder about the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline, whether or not the ‘green’ claims are all they’re cracked up to be.

The unfortunate truth is that many people assume that electric vehicles either do not have a carbon footprint or that their carbon footprint is so significantly reduced from that of a gasoline vehicle as to be inconsequential.

However, the truth that no one likes to admit is that production, shipment, and charging for a new electric vehicle still produces a large amount of carbon emissions, while a used vehicle is likely the lowest cost emissions option because of the eco-cost of manufacturing.

Purchasing an electric vehicle may still be a good option for you, but knowing the facts about what it will really cost the environment (depending on where you live) will allow you to make the best decision for your eco-conscious lifestyle.

What Is the Real Carbon Footprint of Electric Vehicles? (Electric Car Carbon Footprint Truths)

To understand the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline, you have to examine a number of factors. After a specific number of miles on the road, most electric vehicles do tend to have a lower carbon footprint than gas-powered vehicles… but that’s not the case during the manufacturing and shipping processes.

In fact, in many instances the environmental cost of these processes is far worse for electric vehicles, largely due to their lithium-ion batteries (EV batteries).

Truth #1: Carbon Cost of Manufacturing Electric Vehicles

But, what makes building EV batteries so bad for the environment?

The primary issue is that these batteries require the mining and transportation of various raw materials including cobalt and lithium. Usually, the batteries themselves are built in gigafactories, massive facilities that create EV batteries on a large scale.1

These facilities require a large amount of energy to function. Usually, this energy is generated from the burning of fossil fuels. In turn, this increases the carbon footprint of the batteries that are installed in electric vehicles.

And that’s just the actual construction of EV batteries. It’s worth remembering that the mining of raw materials used in EV batteries is also incredibly destructive largely due to unsustainable, unethical, and environmentally hostile mining practices.

All of this contributes to an electric vehicle initially having a much larger carbon footprint than an equivalent gas-powered car. In fact, some researchers have argued that the construction of EV batteries can add almost 40% in extra production emissions.

Truth #2: Carbon Cost of Shipping Electric Vehicles

There are also carbon emissions associated with shipping parts for the vehicles and also shipping the vehicles themselves.

Unfortunately, this is a reality for most products, not just electric cars. If you order something that is produced outside of your general vicinity, it is most likely transported to you using some form of vehicle that burns fossil fuels. It can be by boat, plane, truck, or car – there is always a carbon cost.

The carbon cost increases depending on the complexity and resources used in the production of any given product. For an electric car, the carbon cost of transportation is not limited to just moving the vehicle from one place to another, it also includes the movement of raw materials and the various components, most of which are constructed in facilities that are separate from factories where the car is put together.

In all, the carbon emissions associated with transporting electric vehicles is second only to the carbon cost of an EV battery.2

Truth #3: Carbon Cost of Charging Electric Vehicles

But there is a third carbon cost pillar associated with electric vehicles, and that is how you charge such a vehicle.

The main problem with charging electric vehicles is that they most often pull power from the electric grid which in most of the United States is predominantly powered by fossil fuels. As such, most electric vehicles are still burning fossil fuels, they’re just doing it during the “refueling” stage of a drive and not during the drive itself.

Of course, this specific cost can be lessened depending on how and where you charge your vehicle.

For instance, if an owner of an electric vehicle gets all of their residential energy from solar, wind, or other renewable sources, and if they also charge their car using energy from these renewable sources, then they will have significantly reduced the emissions associated with charging the vehicle.

However, this is only true for a few individuals and would only be viable if they always charged their car at their residence. Given the relatively short range of a single charge and the enormity of the US, this just isn’t applicable to most people.

So, before you buy an electric vehicle, you also need to consider how you will charge it.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of building, shipping, and charging electric vehicles right now.  They are not without their carbon emissions and, when buying a new one, are actually worse for the environment than choosing a used, good condition gas-powered vehicle.

However, the technology is still evolving towards the goal of minimizing the carbon cost associated with electric vehicles.

Batteries Have a Huge Footprint: Battery Emissions Break Down

As you already know, the construction of EV batteries produces a lot of carbon emissions. In fact, according to some researchers, producing one lithium-ion battery is the equivalent to driving a fuel-powered car for one to two years.

For instance, building a 75 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery at Tesla’s battery factory in Nevada would produce approximately 4,500 kilograms (4.9 tons) of carbon dioxide. This is about 3,000 kilograms (3.3 tons) less than if it were produced in certain Chinese factories due to Tesla using solar energy alongside fossil fuels to generate power.

For context, you could produce the same amount of carbon dioxide (4.9 tons) by driving a gas-powered car for 1.4 hours a day, with an average annual distance of 12,000 miles. 4

White electric car being charged at a home garage, examining the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline.

When an electric vehicle is charged from home, the emissions from the electricity generation (especially if it’s fossil fuels) add to the overall carbon footprint of an electric car.

As such, the most effective way to lessen this carbon cost would be to decarbonize the power grid. By making the United States power grid rely on renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels, much of the problem with EV batteries would be either reduced or wholly eliminated. However, such an undertaking would require massive costs and disrupt the livelihoods of millions of people.

Moreover, there would still need to be legislative changes to reduce the harm associated with mining the raw materials used in these batteries. While not as sizable a problem as the power grid, this issue is frequently raised against electric vehicles, but it requires global change to be effective.5

Carbon Footprint of Gasoline Vehicles

The problem with accurately depicting the carbon footprint of a vehicle is that it is highly dependent on where it was made, what it was made from, and where it was moved to before sale. And this is true for electric vehicles as well.

It’s very difficult to accurately assess the carbon footprint of a car because its construction has ripple effects throughout the economy. Its carbon cost is not limited to the auto industry but is widespread.

As such, it’s easier to approach gasoline vehicles like this:

  1. What is the carbon cost of manufacturing a new car?
  2. How much carbon dioxide is emitted per one gallon of fuel?

According to reports, the construction of a sedan will emit about 18 tons of carbon dioxide. But this accounts for very little of a car’s overall carbon footprint.6

The majority of its carbon footprint comes from the amount of carbon dioxide ejected from the tailpipe.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gas-powered sedan will generate between 8 and 10,000 grams of carbon dioxide per gallon.

Given that the average U.S. resident drives about 11,500 miles every year, this comes out to about 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year. However, this number is by no means precise, and other independent organizations have suggested that the average passenger vehicle can produce up to 5.7 tons., if not more.

It really depends on whether the car is well maintained because the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline is directly dependent on maintenance.

Why Does Electricity Have a Bigger Carbon Footprint in My State?

Each state has its own, unique carbon footprint associated with the production of electricity. For owners of electric vehicles, this means that refueling in certain states is better for the overall carbon footprint of the vehicle. For instance, if you recharge your vehicle in Oregon, one kWh of electricity will only create about 0.456 pounds of CO2 emissions, while in the District of Columbia, the average amount of CO2 emissions is 3.614 pounds per kWh.

But why is this the case?

Let’s consider two states: Michigan and Tennessee. Michigan produces about 1.413 pounds of CO2 per kWh, while Tennessee produces only about 1.266 pounds of CO2 per kWh.

Tennessee has a lower emission rate largely because of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was constructed just before World War II to establish hydroelectric power, although it also maintains a diverse portfolio that includes nuclear, coal, natural gasses, and other renewable energy sources. Because of the inclusion of renewable energy sources, the overall carbon footprint of the state is lower.7

So, states (and countries) that rely more on the fossil fuel industry have a higher carbon cost when recharging an electric vehicle. This is true outside of the United States, much of Europe and Asia are dependent on fossil fuels for their electricity, so the cost of recharging a vehicle is notably higher than places where renewables are prioritized.

How Much Coal, Natural Gas, or Petroleum Is Used to Generate One Kilowatt of Electricity?

Check out the average amount of carbon dioxide emissions generated per one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produced. In the U.S., the average is 1.363 pounds of CO2 emissions released per one kWh.

State NamePounds of Carbon Dioxide Emissions per kWh produced
Alabama1.299
Alaska1.106
Arizona1.219
Arkansas1.280
California0.700
Colorado1.986
Connecticut0.754
Delaware1.804
District of Columbia3.614
Florida1.348
Georgia1.388
Hawaii1.655
Idaho0.144
Illinois1.155
Indiana2.098
Iowa1.943
Kansas1.871
Kentucky2.051
Louisiana1.201
Maine0.772
Maryland1.293
Massachusetts1.226
Michigan1.413
Minnesota1.588
Mississippi1.409
Missouri1.881
Montana1.573
Nebraska1.503
Nevada1.573
New Hampshire0.779
New Jersey0.713
New Mexico1.992
New York0.907
North Carolina1.218
North Dakota2.386
Ohio1.779
Oklahoma1.726
Oregon0.456
Pennsylvania1.216
Rhode Island1.071
South Carolina0.915
South Dakota1.215
Tennessee1.266
Texas1.472
Utah2.121
Vermont0.007
Virginia1.211
Washington0.360
West Virginia1.988
Wisconsin1.713
Wyoming2.278

Here’s how much of a given fossil fuel must be consumed to generate a kWh of electricity.

Type of FuelAmount of fuel needed to generate 1 kWh
Coal1.13 pounds
Natural Gas7.43 cubic feet
Petroleum0.08 gallons

Who’s Paying for the Electricity for Electric Cars (Hint: The Climate)

Electric cars may seem like the way of the future, but right now, they are still part of the problem. Unfortunately, most countries produce the majority of their electricity from fossil fuels, so even an electric car is not wholly disconnected from producing carbon emissions.

While those emissions might not come from a dirty tailpipe, they are generated when an electric car is manufactured and recharged.

Unless that power is generated by a renewable energy source like solar or wind, it is being produced by the fossil fuel industry which is, for all intents and purposes, largely responsible for the impending climate crisis.

However, a new electric vehicle is usually still better than buying a new gasoline vehicle. Although they are not carbon free, they are the greener option.

The U.S. Department of Energy has said that most electric cars will generate about 2 tons of CO2 over the course of 11,500 miles (the national annual travel distance), while a gasoline car will generate about 5.7 tons.

Can Gasoline Vehicles Have a Lower Footprint?

Theoretically, it is possible for a gasoline fuel-powered vehicle to have a lower carbon footprint than an electric vehicle, particularly at the start of its lifespan.

If you were to compare the carbon footprint of a new electric car to that of a new gas-powered car, you would find that the gasoline vehicle has a lower carbon footprint. That is largely because the electric vehicle requires the construction of a lithium-ion battery which markedly increases the carbon emissions from its construction.

So, the two cars start out on uneven footing, based on the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline, but it’s the first few years in service that will demonstrate whether the electric vehicle is better than the fuel-powered one.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when comparing these vehicles:

  • Where does the electric vehicle get its power?

In a best case scenario, the electric vehicle receives most, if not all, of its power from renewable energy sources. However, given the amount of electricity generated from the burning of fossil fuels in the U.S., it is more likely that the car gets its power from fossil fuels rather than renewable sources.

  • What is the annual mileage of each car?

If the electric vehicle is driven 45,000 miles a year and the fuel-powered car is only driven 10,000 miles a year, then the gas vehicle is going to be the more sustainable option. But if they were driven the same distance, then the electric car will, most likely, have less impact on the planet.

  • How old is the vehicle?

This is important for both electric and gas-powered vehicles. Without ample car and repair work, a gasoline car’s mileage will worsen while its carbon emissions increase. An electric car, while still requiring care and repair, will not have the same issues. However, replacing the lithium-ion battery can significantly increase the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle. Additionally, an older electric vehicle will have a more limited range and require more charges, this can also add to the carbon footprint of the vehicle.

So, yes, it is possible for a gasoline vehicle to have a lower footprint, but only in specific circumstances.

If the two cars are used the same amount and are similarly maintained, then the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline evens up, and after a specific amount of time, the EV will be the greener option, even if it is still using electricity generated from fossil fuels.

What this means, however, is if you possess a fuel-powered car and don’t use it very often, then you may be better suited by sticking with it rather than switching to an electric vehicle, at least until the manufacturing process is overhauled to better protect the environment. At that stage, your car will cease to be the more sustainable option.8

Working Toward Sustainable Vehicles

It’s important to acknowledge how far technology for sustainable electric vehicles has come in the last decade, but it’s also worth remembering that this technology has not yet reached its green potential.

In fact, there are many changes that must be made to the manufacturing, shipping, and charging of electric vehicles, and to the supporting electrical infrastructure of the United States before that potential can be met or exceeded.

In most instances, an electric vehicle will produce less carbon emissions over its lifetime than a gas-powered vehicle, but that’s not enough, nor does it make up for the actual harm done to the planet to produce these vehicles.

For electric vehicles to be a viable, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly choice for consumers, the biggest changes that need to be made are these:

  • The construction of EV batteries needs to become more sustainable for electric vehicles to be greener. Right now, the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle is largely associated with the carbon cost of its batteries.
  • The United States’ power grid must also be addressed. Most of the electricity used in the U.S. is generated from burning fossil fuels. As such, “refueling” an electric vehicle still produces a large amount of carbon emissions.
  • Until then, eco-conscious shoppers can purchase a tree planting carbon offset from one of reputable carbon credit providers, which will remove all the emissions generated by personal travel.

If these problems are addressed, then the decision to buy an electric vehicle becomes far simpler as they will be objectively better for the environment, and neatly outclass other vehicles on the market.

Until then, consumers should continue to weigh the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline vehicles in order to make the best decision based on their lifestyle.


References

1Tabuchi, H., & Plumer, B. (2021, March 2). How Green Are Electric Vehicles? Retrieved December 21, 2021, from The New York Times: <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/electric-vehicles-environment.html>

2Bieker, G. (2021, July 20). A global comparison of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of combustion engine and electric passenger cars. Retrieved December 22, 2021, from The International Council on Clean Transportation: <https://theicct.org/publications/global-LCA-passenger-cars-jul2021>

3Factbox: Lifetime carbon emissions of electric vehicles vs gasoline cars. (2021, July 7). Retrieved December 22, 2021, from Reuters: <https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/lifetime-carbon-emissions-electric-vehicles-vs-gasoline-cars-2021-06-29/>

4Nguyen, A. (2021, May 11). CO2 output from making an electric car battery isn’t equal to driving a gasoline car for 8 years. Retrieved December 22, 2021, from Politifact: <https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/may/11/viral-image/producing-electric-cars-battery-does-not-emit-same/>

5Choudhury, S. R. (2021, July 26). Are electric cars ‘green’? The answer is yes, but it’s complicated. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from CNBC: <https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/26/lifetime-emissions-of-evs-are-lower-than-gasoline-cars-experts-say.html>

6Berners-Lee, M., & Clark, D. (2010, September 23). What’s the carbon footprint of… a new car? Retrieved December 22, 2021, from The Guardian: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/sep/23/carbon-footprint-new-car>

7Energy. (2021). Retrieved December 22, 2021, from Tennessee Valley Authority: <https://www.tva.com/>

8Tepedino, C., & Walker, L. (2021, December 2). Everything You Need to Know About Your Car’s Carbon Footprint. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from US Insurance Agents: <https://www.usinsuranceagents.com/everything-you-need-know-about-your-cars-carbon-footprint/>