At a glance

  • There is a lot of science-backed evidence that electric cars are ‘greener’ than petrol and diesel powered alternatives
  • But it’s complicated, with a lot of different factors influencing the ‘green-ness’ of an individual vehicle
  • Find out what makes electric vehicles green – but also their unsustainable  consequences
  • Learn what can make an individual vehicle more or less eco-friendly


If you’re thinking of buying an electric vehicle (EV), then there’s a good chance that climate change is one factor influencing your decision. A 2020 poll by YouGov found that ‘the environment’ was the top reason people bought EV’s across Europe and the UK. And a recent Hyundai study found that just over half of Brits are looking to become more green, so a ‘cleaner’ vehicle could help them do this. 

But are electric cars green in reality? While EV manufacturers are keen to promote them as part of the solution to climate change, it’s sensible to take those claims with a pinch of salt. 

Let’s look at how green electric cars really are, and the factors which influence their sustainability. The good news is that, in practically all cases, they are better for the environment than petrol/diesel-powered cars with an internal combustion engine (ICE). Still, the picture gets a little more complex when you dig deeper… 

What is a carbon footprint?

When you’re asking yourself, ‘how green is an electric car’, it’s useful to  consider carbon footprints. A carbon footprint is a measure of all the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GhG’s) during the lifecycle of a car. Carbon footprint calculations can only ever offer an estimate, and there’s plenty of disagreement among scientists about how emissions should be calculated and defined. Still, they give a good rough indication of a vehicle’s environmental impact. 

Now, since EV’s don’t burn fuel in their engines, they don’t directly emit any CO2 while you’re driving them. But this doesn’t mean they’re guilt free! There are a bunch of other factors that influence an EV’s carbon footprint:

  • Raw material extraction: To make an EV, you need thousands of raw materials extracted from mines, fields, even animals (if you’ve got leather upholstering) around the world, which then get shipped to factories. This usually entails a lot of carbon and GhG emissions.  
  • Manufacturing: Building the cars (and their parts) in a factory also comes with a lot of emissions. Some EV manufacturers do power their facilities with 100% renewable energy, but others don’t. 
  • Transport: Getting your EV from the factory to the showroom also involves more emissions, especially if it’s shipped from overseas. 
  • Electricity source: Unless you get pure electric car green energy from solar panels on your roof, then realistically you’ll need to power the EV from the national grid. In the UK, a lot of this electricity is now sourced from renewable energy (reaching 57% zero carbon in October, including nuclear), but much still comes from carbon-belching sources like natural gas. 
  • End of life: What happens to your EV after you sell it on or scrap it will also affect its eco-credentials – read our guide to recycling EV batteries to learn more. 

All of these factors make it difficult when calculating exactly how green an electric car is. Still, many academics and companies have tried, with their results showing a mixed picture. So, are electric cars as green as you think?

When it comes to the carbon footprint of electric cars, analysts have crunched the numbers and come up with fairly sobering results. In the US, a recent study by news agency Reuters found you’d have to drive an EV 13,500 miles before it would ‘break even’ in terms of emissions compared to a standard ICE car. Remember, though, that the US uses much more coal to power its grid than the UK. 

But are electric cars more green than ICE vehicles overall? This is where things get more positive. There are loads of studies which show EVs and their lifecycle carbon footprints are far lower than ICE alternatives. For instance, a study by energy organisation ICCT shows an EV’s lifecycle emissions are around 75 tons of CO2, compared to about 240 tons for an ICE car. Plenty of similar studies show EVs are greener overall. 

How do electric cars help the environment?

It might be a little disingenuous to claim EVs ‘help’ the environment. In the end, they still cause quite a bit of damage. Still, they have far less impact than ICE vehicles, and assuming humans aren’t ready to ditch the idea of cars altogether, they’re a big improvement on the status quo. Here are some of the ways that electric cars are more green:

  • Reduces the incentive to extract oil: If there are fewer ICE cars on the road, there’s going to be less demand for petrol and diesel. This means oil and gas firms are likely to reduce how much of the stuff they pump out of the ground. 
  • No direct air pollution from exhaust pipes: Since they’re powered by batteries, you won’t emit any local air pollution from your car’s exhaust. 
  • Potential for 100% green power: The UK has set a target to be carbon neutral by 2050, so it’s feasible that your EV could be powered by completely green electricity in the near future. What’s more, if you were to install solar panels on your roof (or use solar-powered EV charging stations like this) to charge your car, you could be confident of 100% green power right away. 
  • Potentially easier to recycle: EV’s are, in theory, easier to recycle than ICE cars – the batteries are easier to dismantle then recycle than a traditional engine. 
  • May have more eco-friendly supply chains: Some – but definitely not all – EV manufacturers are striving to use more eco-friendly materials in their cars, from upholstery through to plastics on the dashboard and more. 

It’s also worth mentioning that EVs produce less noise pollution too. It’s not a direct environmental impact, but makes villages, towns, and cities nicer for residents!

What could make electric cars more eco-friendly?

To make electric cars really green, there are several things that industry, government and drivers could do:

  • Recycle: Recycling the batteries, materials and other parts found in EVs would significantly reduce their environmental impact. Recycling more would reduce the amount of ‘rare earth’ metals we extract from the ground to make the cars’ batteries. This in turn would reduce their impact significantly. 
  • Technological improvements: EV batteries are improving all the time, becoming more efficient and smaller. Back in 2017, the UK government announced £40 million to invest in making EV batteries better, while the US government’s recent Inflation Reduction Act is set to plough cash into EV battery improvement. Better tech would be more efficient and hopefully further reduce impacts on the planet. 
  • Renewable electricity generation: If all EV charge points were powered by purely renewable energy, then these vehicles would have a lower environmental impact. 
  • Drive smarter: As explained below, EVs throw up a lot of dust into the air when you use the brakes (especially since they’re heavier than most ICE cars). Less aggressive driving and braking by owners makes them more eco friendly too. 
  • Consider alternative mobility models: If consumers could be encouraged to use car-sharing schemes and rental models, this would reduce the need for everyone to own their own car, thereby reducing the need to produce as many EVs in the first place. 

What are the environmental pros of owning an electric car?

Are electric cars actually green? Overall, the answer’s a big ‘yes’! Here are some of the eco-conscious benefits of owning an EV:

  • No direct emissions as no exhaust
  • Reduced air pollution
  • Can be powered by 100% renewable energy
  • Tend to be long lasting, so you won’t need to replace soon
  • Batteries and car body can be recycled
  • It sends a clear signal to car manufacturers and energy producers that consumers want them to change their behaviour

Are there environmental cons to owning an electric car?

Although electric cars tend to be a lot ‘greener’ than traditional ICE vehicles, they still do some damage to the environment:

  • It is arguably less environmentally damaging to run an efficient modern ICE vehicle for several more years than it is to buy a new EV which emits a lot of emissions during its production (though we are of course going to need new EVs as old cars eventually die)
  • If you wanted to dramatically reduce your impact on the environment fast, one of the quickest ways would be to use no car at all
  • EVs tend to be heavier than ICE vehicles, so they throw up a lot of dust when you use the brakes – this is actually a larger cause of local air pollution than many people realise
  • Extracting all the raw materials used in an EV and the battery comes with significant environmental costs – from damaging rainforests around cobalt mines, to tons of CO2 emitted by ships that transport the cars between continents
  • If the car’s energy is sourced from factories that burn coal or other fossil fuels, you’re arguably only shifting the problem

So, are EVs really green?

Overall, yes, it seems reasonable to describe EVs as ‘green’. While they’re far from perfect, they’re also significantly less environmentally damaging than ICE cars. As noted above, an EV’s lifecycle CO2 emissions are around 75 tons, which is about three times less than your standard ICE vehicle. 

Ultimately, it’s about what being ‘green’ really means. If we wanted to immediately stop all of humanity’s environmental damage, we’d probably have to ban driving altogether – which seems unrealistic. But, if we assume that nature can tolerate some damage – and be given enough time to recover – then EVs could well allow us to have a similar standard of life to what we’re used to, without completely damaging the planet. 

So, are electric cars green? The evidence seems to suggest that yes, they are. No one is claiming they’re perfect, but they’re measurably better than the alternative. And, with improved technology and a cleaner national grid, they could become even more eco-friendly in future.  

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