Union of Concerned Scientists

Electric Cars Are Critical to a Clean Future

Electric vehicles (EVs) are an important part of how we will reduce climate-changing emissions, air pollution, and petroleum consumption. Are they the only way we will cut pollution from personal transportation? Of course not. EVs are critical, but we’ll also need to be smart about using urban design, transit, and shared mobility to reduce the amount of driving from all vehicles. However, a recent U.S. News & World Report article puts EVs in a false competition with these other strategies, while also repeating myths about the environmental impacts of EVs.

EVs reduce emissions now

On average, EVs on the road today produce less global warming emissions than the average new gasoline car.

The emissions do depend on where in the U.S. the EV is used, because electric power generation comes from different sources depending on the region. Because many of the EVs have been sold in regions with cleaner power (like California), the EVs being used today are, on average, responsible for fewer emissions than any gasoline-powered car.

Based on sales through 2016, the using the average EV is responsible for global warming emissions equal to that of a 73 MPG gasoline car.

EVs are still responsible for fewer global warming emissions, even when you consider the additional energy and materials needed to manufacture the batteries that power EVs. We found that these extra emissions are offset quickly by savings during use; on average after 6 to 18 months of use.

There are also other concerns mentioned in passing in the U.S. News article, such as the impact of mining for battery raw materials. But the negative impacts from raw material extraction are largely due to lax regulations and can be addressed through better policy and corporate responsibility.

For components like cobalt and rare earth metals, all high-tech consumer product companies need to ensure that they have environmentally responsible supply chains that also protect the rights and health of those impacted by mining. This is as true for Apple and Samsung as it is for EV manufacturers.

There have been positive developments from batteries suppliers and technology companies, but they can and should do more to ensure responsible battery production.

At the same time we also need to consider the negative impacts of gasoline production, from human rights abuses to massive environmental disasters during oil extraction, to the unavoidable air pollution damage from refining and burning gasoline in our cars. All our personal transportation fuels – gasoline, diesel, biofuels, or electricity – can be cleaner if fuel producers are held accountable to reduce their pollution.

Moving to EVs faster will help to reduce emissions even more

Another attack on EVs in the U.S. News article is that EVs only make up a small fraction of the vehicles on the country’s roads today. This is true, but is not a reason to turn back. The first mass-market EVs only went on sale at the end of 2010. From those two models (Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF), the market has now grown to some 30 EV models available today. However, many of these EVs are not sold nationwide and are not marketed effectively.

In one notable case, Fiat Chrysler has decided to not even let customers outside of California know that it’s new minivan comes in a plug-in version.

Still, EV sales are increasing and hitting new milestones, especially in places with strong regulations and incentive programs like California where manufacturers have also placed much more effort to sell EVs (when compared to the rest of the U.S.)

In the first quarter of 2017, EV sales in California were nearly 5 percent of all new car sales and for some manufacturers were much higher. For example, General Motors’ Chevrolet brand had plug-in cars make up over 15 percent of all new sales in the first 3 months of 2017.

Having more options for new car buyers to pick a plug-in car will only help make the market grow. And it’s important for the market to grow as quickly as possible. Because cars often stay on the road more than a decade, it’s critical to speed up the transition from petroleum to electricity.

The future is electric, but also needs shared transportation

The future of driving is electric. It’s not just our opinion at UCS, both car companies and governments realize that EVs are the future. CEOs of Ford and  VW have gone on record with predictions of high volume EV sales. And France, Norway, and India are among the countries that have set impressive goals to transition to EVs.

But EVs alone aren’t enough to meet our climate goals. It’s important to also reduce the impact from transportation by reducing the number of miles we drive, even from electric cars. Shared transportation, whether via transit, carpools, or new ridesharing services, will also be important to make significant reductions in pollution. But this is in no way in competition with EVs. Instead, EVs are complementary to many of these shared transportation options.

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