Are Electric Cars Really Environmentally Friendly?

Electric cars and hybrids became increasingly popular because of the highly erratic price of fuel and because of an urgent need for a cleaner environment. But scientists and environmentalists alike are now questioning the positive impact that electric vehicles actually have on our fight for a greener Earth. The question here is: Do we have reason to doubt the technology?


One of the most talked about advantages of using electric cars is that unlike conventional vehicles that run on fossil fuels, EV’s produce zero gas emissions. In this sense they are 100% eco-friendly. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas produced by humans and CO2 emissions from our vehicles and other means of transportation remain one of the major contributors to smog in urban areas and to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. By using an automobile that does not contribute to this type of atmospheric pollution we could all positively affect the environment.


Transporting people from place to place by burning fossil fuels, such as diesel and gasoline, has become the second largest source of CO2 gas emissions. In fact in 2013, transportation was responsible for a 31% contribution to the United States’ total CO2 emissions and 26% of total greenhouse emissions. Fossil fuel dependence has become such a huge problem that many consequences of pollution like smog in urban areas, acid rain, oil spills and even climate change are attributed to its use, acquisition and processing.

Promoting use of electric cars, especially if it is done in a wide scale, could greatly decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and the evils that come along with it. Thankfully, global initiatives are taking huge strides in the positive direction. Thanks to cities and governments who give tax incentives to owners of electric vehicles, the public is slowly warming to the idea of owning environmentally responsible vehicles.


One of the more surprising advantages of using electric cars is the fact that it may help cool down urban areas. Ever wonder why cities tend to be warmer than their surrounding rural areas? This is a phenomenon referred to as the “Urban Heat Island” effect or UHI. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. cities can be hotter by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit than the less populated areas around it. This may be caused by the change in landscape often brought about by urban development. Areas that used to be permeable and moist, and can therefore dissipate heat, become impermeable and dry. A study, led by Canbing Li from Hunan University, suggests that switching fossil fuel burning vehicles to electric vehicles has a positive impact on UHI’s.  The study used Beijing, a city with severe smog problems and a definite urban heat island, as a model. According to the study electric cars produce only 19.8% of the total heat per mile produced by a conventional vehicle. Using that data, they calculated that urban island intensity (an indicator of UHI) would be lowered by as much as 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit with a total switch to electric cars. This would then lower air conditioning use by 14.44 million kilowatt-hours or a reduced daily CO2 emission of as much as 10,686 tons. The enlightening study was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

The positive environmental impact of using electric cars is well and good, but do you ever stop to think about the catch 22 of all these benefits?

Innovative as they may be the manufacturers of these cars have not yet been able to work around some of the downsides of owning an EV.


Electric cars run on rechargeable batteries instead of fossil fuels. Batteries for all types of electric vehicles need to be replaced every 3-10 years, depending on the maker of the vehicle, owner care and usage. Most manufacturers will offer a warranty of up to 8 years, the average lifetime of any vehicle. Batteries however may wear out earlier than that and will then need to be replaced. Environmentalists are concerned about this because battery disposal, whether from a conventional vehicle or an electric one, is hazardous and harmful to the earth.


The biggest environmental advantage of owning an electric car may also be its biggest drawback. Electric vehicles run on electricity and electricity is often produced through fossil fuels. We have mentioned above that transportation is the second largest source of CO2 and greenhouse emissions in the United States. Guess what the largest source is – ELECTRICITY. Electricity production and use accounts for 37% of CO2 emissions and 31% of total greenhouse gas emissions by the United States in the year 2013 alone. To add, electric cars can increase your electric bill significantly, especially if there are no other charging stations near you. Looking at it through this perspective, electric cars may not have such a positive impact on the environment.

One of the biggest drawbacks of electric vehicles is its huge dependence on electricity – which is quite dependent on coal and other types of fossil fuels. But what if the majority of your electricity source is no longer dependent on coal? For areas using low-polluting and renewable energy, electric cars could have a life cycle emissions advantage against conventional vehicles. Even in areas that use coal burning plants to produce electricity, electric cars may still have a slight advantage over combustion engine vehicles.

Despite technology not being where it should be ideally with regards to environmental standards, replacing your conventional cars with electric vehicles may still be a step in the right direction. It may take years before we can see electric vehicles run completely on clean energy, from production to maintenance and use, but the future is looking bright for green technology.