With oil spills wreaking havoc on our waterways and global temperatures hitting record levels, it’s clear we need to start making some changes to the way we travel to protect the environment — and soon. The problem is, even as electric vehicles become more affordable and available, researchers aren’t really clear on how green they really are.
It’s partly a question of energy-intensive manufacturing techniques and different raw materials, which can produce double the emissions of manufacturing a conventional car. But mainly, the impact an electric vehicle has on the environment depends on where you’re doing your driving. Study and after study has shown that whether or not electric cars actually cut greenhouse gas emissions depends heavily on where you live — and your local source of power.
In the UK, where 73% of the power grid comes from burning coal or natural gas, electric cars are slightly cleaner than conventional vehicles, but are far from a perfect solution. Contrast that with Austria, where around 70% of the country is powered by renewable sources. In some parts of Europe, electric cars are the cleanest option around.
Within the US, it varies from state to state. In some states like New Mexico and Illinois, hybrid cars are actually better for the environment than electric cars. In the Pacific Northwest, where hydroelectric plants are more common, electric cars win hands down.
Of course, if you live somewhere with a large number of nuclear power plants, it’s a harder call to make — while nuclear power plants don’t release harmful emissions, they come with their own risks and dangers.
How green an electric vehicle is can even vary depending on what time of day you charge your battery — cars being charged at night will produce fewer emissions because nighttime power is less dependent on coal.
So what should you take away from all this when shopping for your next car? Well, an electric vehicle is almost always slightly better for the environment than a gas-burning vehicle. But depending on where you live, the emissions may only be 10-25% less than a regular car, at least right now. As more and more countries shift to renewable energy sources, those numbers will get better, so you can think of an electric or hybrid vehicle as a long-term investment instead of an immediate quick fix for pollution and climate change.
And if you really want to commute more sustainably? Consider getting a bike or walking if you can. Take public transit if it’s available in your area. Don’t drive when you don’t need to. And if you live in an area where a car is a necessity, consider investing in a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle, whether it’s electric, hybrid, or a regular gas-burning car.