Reducing Pollution with Electric Vehicles

You are here

Plug-in electric vehicles (also known as electric cars or EVs) can help keep your town and your world clean. In general, EVs produce fewer emissions that contribute to climate change and smog than conventional vehicles.

There are two general categories of vehicle emissions: direct and life cycle.

Direct emissions are emitted through the tailpipe, through evaporation from the fuel system, and during the fueling process. Direct emissions include smog-forming pollutants (such as nitrogen oxides), other pollutants harmful to human health, and greenhouse gases (GHGs), primarily carbon dioxide.  All-electric vehicles produce zero direct emissions, which specifically helps improve air quality in urban areas. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which have a gasoline engine in addition to an electric motor, produce evaporative emissions from the fuel system as well as tailpipe emissions when operating on gasoline. However, because most PHEVs are more efficient than comparable conventional vehicles, they still produce fewer tailpipe emissions even when relying on gasoline.

Life cycle emissions include all emissions related to fuel and vehicle production, processing, distribution, use, and recycling/disposal.  For example, for a conventional gasoline vehicle, emissions are produced when petroleum is extracted from the ground, refined to gasoline, distributed to stations, and burned in vehicles. Like direct emissions, life cycle emissions include a variety of harmful pollutants and GHGs. 

All vehicles produce substantial life cycle emissions, and calculating them is complex. However, EVs typically produce fewer life cycle emissions than conventional vehicles because most emissions are lower for electricity generation than burning gasoline or diesel. The exact amount of these emissions depends on your electricity mix, which varies by geographic location. While the U.S. national averages are above, look up your specific zip code’s electricity mix and EV emissions on the Alternative Fuels Data Center. EV drivers can further minimize their life cycle emissions by using electricity generated by non-polluting renewable sources like solar and wind.   Learn how to buy renewable electricity or install it on your home at the EnergySaver site.