Do electric cars cause more or less climate pollution than gasoline cars? Take a look.

Electricity has arrived as a fuel source for an increasing number of vehicles. Will this increase or decrease climate pollution compared to using gasoline?

I've heard so much confusion about this that I decided to make one of my Visual Carbon charts to allow informed comparisons at a glance. Turns out this was easier imagined than done. Determining the climate pollution from electric-fuelled vehicles requires compiling data on three new variables:

  1. ELECTRICITY: The amount of climate pollution released when generating electricity varies dramatically between regions. This is the primary factor determining how much climate pollution an electric vehicle causes.
  2. MAKING THE CARS: Making electric cars and their batteries is significantly different than making old-school gasoline cars. Studies show that the climate pollution is higher to make electric vehicles.
  3. BATTERY REPLACEMENT: The climate impact of replacing traction batteries during the lifespan of an electric car needs to be considered.

After two weeks of dissecting geeky studies, wading through energy databases and hunting through industry websites I found what I needed. The result is the chart below.

Chart notes:

  • Each bar in my chart shows the climate pollution released from building, and then driving, a particular vehicle.
  • The different colours in each bar represent: making the car (black); making the traction battery (purple); burning gasoline (brown) and generating electricity for fuel (orange).
  • The top rows show climate pollution from a typical all-electric vehicle. Next is a plug-in hybrid that uses both electricity and gasoline. At the bottom is a range of gasoline-only vehicles.
  • For electric-fuelled vehicles, several electricity scenarios are provided to show a range from dirtiest to cleanest.
  • You can click the chart to view it full size.


The big picture

Four main conclusions leap out of this chart for me.

1 -- In most regions, cars fuelled by electricity create less climate pollution than the very best all-gasoline fuelled car.

In regions with very high percentages of renewable electricity -- like BC, Ontario and Quebec -- the total climate pollution from electric vehicle is less than half what is created by the best gasoline-only cars. In BC, for example, an electric Nissan Leaf will create just 30% of the climate pollution that the best all-gasoline car does.

2 -- In dirty electricity regions, driving on electricity creates similar climate pollution to gasoline.

Regions that burn mostly coal and natural gas to generate electricity create high levels of climate pollution for each kWh. In Alberta, for example, a Plug-In Prius will cause a similar amount of climate pollution driving on gasoline as it does driving on Alberta's electricity.

Some electric car owners have worked around this problem by putting up their own solar panels, or by purchasing cleaner electricity directly from their utility.  

3 -- The climate pollution from burning gasoline vastly exceeds the climate pollution from making the car.

The average US car weighs around 1.5 tonnes but burns nearly 30 tonnes of gasoline. Thirty tonnes. For perspective that much gasoline would fill a stack of oil barrels much higher than the world's tallest tree, the Statue of Liberty or the Canadian Parliament.

As my chart shows, this gasoline causes 102 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) while building the vehicle itself causes just 7 tCO2. Driving the car, not making it, causes almost all the climate damage.

4 -- There is a gigantic difference in how much climate pollution comes from today's cars.

For example an electric car fuelled by BC electricity will emit a tenth as much climate pollution (15 tCO2) as a large gasoline fuelled SUV (over 160 tCO2). Even within the ranks of all-gasoline cars, the difference can be over 100 tCO2.


Below I answer some of the most common questions I come across about climate pollution from electric and gasoline vehicles.

Q: How much climate pollution is created making an electric car and its battery?

A: Around 14 tCO2 = twice as much as for making an average gasoline-only car

DISCUSSION: Researchers have done several studies on this. The study I used estimates that twice as much CO2 is released building an EV as building an average gasoline-only car. Most of the difference is caused by creating the large traction battery. Specifically the study estimated:

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Thanks for this excellent

Thanks for this excellent article.

While it demonstrates that electric vehicles do indeed reduce CO2 emissions, it also provides the basis for evaluating current policies.

For example, it appears from your chart that building and driving a Nissan Leaf versus a Toyota Prius in California reduces CO2 emissions by about 28 tons over the lifetime of the vehicles.  The incentives for  purchasing the Leaf in California total $10,000US ($2,500US California rebate and $7,500US federal tax credit), or about $360US per ton of CO2 conserved.

This is of, course, and extremely high value.  One has to wonder if it would not be a more effective use of the public funds to expand public transport, or perhaps subsidize the conversion of large trucks and busses to using LNG, for example.




Nice article!

I'd love to see diesel cars factored into the comparison.

They are a slowly growing component, but get excellent gas mileage that competes with the best all gasoline hybrids but don't have the battery issues. However, I'm not sure if other factors influence their overall output. With North American diesel, they still have some particulate problems (although far improved now).


EVs do not solve most of the problems cars cause

Very useful and well presented information. I look forward to your further analysis of urban transit. Right now my bet would be that the electric trolleybus is one of the least polluting, since it uses existing roads and most of the new rail options - like building more Sktrain lines or doing lots of tunnelling - require huge amounts of energy and concrete.

EVs are indeed necessary as a way of mitigating the climate impact of driving, but there are a whole raft of problems that ae caused by chosing a car over other modes for most journeys. It does not help that our built environment is designed for cars - and that domination continues in new development. So traffic congestion, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, casualties from collisions will continue to dominate our discussions long after every car is an EV.   

Some other factors in carbon footprint

Great analysis, but there are a few crucial pieces that seem to be missing.

One is the distance traveled for cars, the benefit of replacing a gas guzzling taxi that is driven 50,000 km a year with a much more efficient car is obvious. The benefit of repacing a small car that is only driven 5,000 km a year may be non-existant or negative. (For example, an older 1 litre / 3 cylinder geo metro)

Another point is the overall carbon footprint (lifecycle emissions) of transportation. For gasoline powered automobiles you can add about a third to tailpipe emissions http://www.hydroquebec.com/sustainable-development/documentation/pdf/opt...

This points out the potential advantage of sharing cars, you can use the vehicle enough to justify the carbon footprint of an electric or hybrid and share the parking too. Building an underground parking space costs about $35,000; and involves considerable carbon intensive concrete and steel.

What about the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles?

Nice work. I might suggest you expand the study to include fuel cell electric vehicles that fuel in under 5 minutes, travel 300- 400 miles on a tank and can seat as many passengers as any conventional vehicle can. I see a role for battery electrics, but for true versatility ease of use, the fuel cell vehicles are pretty compelling. The site cleancaroptions.com has taken a look at the environmental impact as well -- a pretty good story. 

Did You Factor in the Grid

Barry - Good methodology and similar to what I do in comparison between my sustainable agriculture and industrial agriculture using embedded energy values. However, did you factor in the efficiency lost in the transmission of the electricity through the grid? For example, if a power plant produces electricity at 30% efficiency and the grid is 40% efficient, the electricity at the householder level is only 12%.

[And no snotty comments all you wannabe trolls - this is an important factor.]

electric car batteries

While the study states that batteries for an e-vehicle will need to be replaced at least once, and lists the ghg's implicit of that, Mr. Saxifrage does not state what will happen to the old batteries. I have been dismayed in my own reasearch to find that battery recycling is a farce. U.S. sources claim 90% recycling rates for lead-acid, yet I found that 90% are actually shipped to poor countries to be dismantled by hand in people's ponds and streams causing pollution and death and disease. Of the rest maybe 90% are recycled but no system exists to monitor compliance. 

Hi-tech batteries offer NO recycling posibilities and are the cause of terrible labour conditions in South American mines.

Cradle-to-grave analysis of technology requires the tallying of ALL effects. Please do more research.

Good report also but a few

Good report also but a few items stand out for me.  Also mentined in comments above there is no diesel driven engine comparisons.  Diesel engines are more efficient (about 30% more-- presently) therefore less Co2 emissions per km.  Europe is much ahead on this ie diesel vehicles account for over 50% of on road vehicles while in USA it is 3%.  Go to Carpages.uk to check out the least carbon emission vehicles ( in grams per kilometer).  Plug-in vehicles with diesel should run less than 2l/100km consuption on combined cycle.  Life times for PHEV's should be greatly extended with engines running in their sweet spot for extended periods.  Less CAPEX.  Reason why diesel not popullar here is we have too much sulfur in our fuels and not able to take advantage of the common rail injection system.  Diesel also allows bio-fuel mixing easily.

EV's presently do not have range--that is changing but it takes more battery power--higher costs.  Then what hapens when the power goes off--for a day--week?  PHEV's are critical part of this senerio--they even act as emergency gen. A mix will be vital.

The other major feature that needs adressing is effect on CO2 emissions when power is generated by nuclear reactors replacing coal and gas fired generators.  If you are serious about effects of GHG's on environment you cannot ignore them.  Look up SMR's, small modular reactors--wikipedia has a good write-up.  Fourth or fifth gen technology.



good reasearch nice job



Nice job on bringing all this information together.  It's amazing how much anti-electric car people have twisted this information to their own ends to try and make the blanket case that electric cars aren't cleaner and like you point out if depends, but in general an electric cars is the cleanest option.  I've seen Mr.Lomborg's claim about this reprinted many many times now and other "journalists" take this information and republish his claims as fact.  Thanks for this.



production: electricity vs gas

The chart report the pollution created from producing electricity vs the pollution created from burning gas.  Does it include the pollution created from extracting the gas?

CO2 to produce the gas

When comparing the CO2 produced by electric  cars vs gas cars you included the CO2 made during the production of the electricity but what happened to the CO2 created to make and distribute the gas?  More energy is consumed to make the gas than is used to drive the electric car down the road.

Electrical cars for kids

The toys manufacturers have become much tech savvy these days. No wonder, you can find wide range of kids electric cars in the market, and most of them have been inspired from the famous car brands available in the current times. You can choose one for your kid and make him feel on the top of world.

All cars after running needs

All cars after running needs some maintenance, it shows different types of problem which is repair by mechanic. I am not totally agreed with the above article. EVs not solves all problems of a car

The tips or solutions given above are right but other techniques are also present for repair a used car.

Porsche Repair Pasadena

Excellent Analysis

Great work.

This really puts in perspective the questions over manufacture versus use of ICE and electric cars.

If you have any updates please let me know. The quality of your work and the rigor you have applied are an excellent reflection of the honesty and diligence Canadians have earned a reputation for.

Thanks Canada! ;)


Reinventing Fire

CO2 Emissions from producing the Fuel

How much CO2 is produced extracting crude, transtporting it to refinery, refining it and transporting it to the various regions?  I heard, but have not confirmed, that it takes about the same amount of electricity to refine one gallon of gas as to propel an EV 20 miles.  That doesn't even account for the other sources of CO2 needed to get a gallon to my tank or CO2 from military protection of shipping lanes etc.

About 5kWh electricity to refine 1 US Gallon of Gas

Gas cars also use electricity, which isn't shown - it takes about 5kWh of electricity to refine 1 US Gallon of gasoline:


"you have enough electricity to power all the cars in the country if you stop refining gasoline" - quote from the article above.

I don't know if this includes also distribution, gas station electricity usage, etc, but if not, then this should also be added.

I'd like to see a followup article with this analysis included.

I think that electric

I think that electric vehicles will protect our environment


How would world look like if

How would world look like if you interduce an eletric car? how our life will be ?- you will find very interesting results in  yopreneur.com 

Forgot one factor

If you are going to take into account the fuel source and the emissions associated with the production of that source fuel you need to be fair and factor that in across ALL fuel sources.

One factor that is missed time and time again is the amount of emissions created to distill petroleum products.  If the distillation process uses 100% electricity than all your assumptions about how clean or dirty power production is in that region applies 100% then to the creation of the petroleum based fuel as well. So if it takes 1kWh to create one gallon of gas that has to be factored into the pollution statement.  You also have to factor in the delivery method. Since electricity is delivered over a grid into our homes there is no pollution in transportation (well, not necessarily any pollution). And there is more to transport those petroleum fuels to their ultimate fueling destination before they end up in your car.

I wonder...

While reading through the comments, I noticed that many seem to "disagree" with people just asking a question. What's that about?

Q: "I wonder how much CO2 is caused by the production of fuel."

C: "I strongly disagree with that!"


Personally I think people need to start thinking before clicking the disagree button.

Grid efficiency

Walter wrote:

Barry - Good methodology and similar to what I do in comparison between my sustainable agriculture and industrial agriculture using embedded energy values. However, did you factor in the efficiency lost in the transmission of the electricity through the grid? For example, if a power plant produces electricity at 30% efficiency and the grid is 40% efficient, the electricity at the householder level is only 12%.

[And no snotty comments all you wannabe trolls - this is an important factor.]

This is very important, but then we also have to include the supply side of the gasoline. Transportation to the gas station, production in the oil fields and so forth. And you have to include the supply side for the power plant. My guess is it complicates things.

http://www.nema.org/Products/Documents/TDEnergyEff.pdf This source from ABB estimates 6-8% loss in the transmission and distribution system, and 30-60% efficiency for the coal power plant depending on technology which leaves us at somewhere between 27.5% and 56% efficiency of electricity generation. Modern gasoline engines are only 25-30 % efficient.


word is that fracking for natural gas contaminates aquifers

Peer-reviewed research now reveals that the 'clean energy' sales pitch of the natural gas industry is false.  Not only is the CO2 footprint on par with the Coal industry, after factoring in the extraction emissions, the methane loss into the atmosphere, use of more power and natural gas to cool the product to make LNG, then the emissions from transportation to Asian markets, then the CO2 emissions from the use in those foreign industries....but the immediate threat of dependency on natural gas is that the fracking process contaminates our aquifers and groundwater sources.

No amount of dollar gain can justify contaminating our limited fresh water sources.  Fracking for natural gas is insane. Would the natural gas industry expose this fact...Not likely.

Just google search:  Fracking contamination



Electric cars

Dear Barry

I want to let you know of my new book for your perusal.
'The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science’, available on Amazon.
Thank you.
Historical Climatologist

PS My website is <www.drtimball.com>Documentaryhttp://youtu.be/sO08Hhjes_0

diesel comparison

I bought my VW golf clean diesel in 2011. At that time, I did a footprint comparison. It came out at par with hybrids. I get between 900 and 1100 km per tank (I can drive from Toronto to Montreal and bank on one tankful). How is that missing from your comparison?

Carbon Emissions

An excellent report on various transport methods. I suspect the vast majority of the population and media are undereducated on these facts. I have yet to see a media report about fitting extra people on a plane, as some low cost carriers have been doing of late, advise that the carbon output per passenger is lower, and therefore good thing for the environment.

pollution: electric cars v gasoline cars

One aspect of the comparisons that should be excluded is the argument that using an electric car increases pollution via coal-burning electric generating stations.
This is a red herring.  Coal burning issues belong in the bailiwick of the Federal governments, choosing an EV over a GV is an individual choice.
Switching, where possible, to EVs would reduce car pollution. Then pressure would be totally on the Feds to reduce coal-burning pollution.  You gotta start somewhere and car by car is a lot easier than eliminating coal-burning generating stations.
Oh, and governments should, at all levels, provide incentives for individuals to make a difference.


Embedded Energy

Hi Barry,

i noticed that hydropower in BC and Quebec is rated as the cleanest source of electricity yet no mention was made of the energy consumed  upfront by the construction or the loss of GHG sequestering area created by the lake created or the loss of agricultural land and habitat created by the dam things all of which are costs that IMO should be added to the throughput numbers you've provided in your comparisons.

That said, this is a difficult conundrum to unravel and i appreciate all the work you've done in compiling and presenting this.






Nice article.

I also would like to see small diesels factored in... though not a large segment now, they are going to become significantly more prevalent over the 2015-2017 MY. Examples: GM just introduced the diesel Cruze, and will bring in a small diesel pickup next year (Colorado/Canyon). Dodge just introduced a full size pickup with an economical six cylinder diesel.

Almost all the car manufacturers have small diesels ready for the NA market already running in europe or asia. I believe US fleet economy requirements will cause many of these small diesels to appear in our market.

I have read diesels are 30% more fuel efficient due to "pumping loss" and the higher energy content of the fuel. I am also wondering if the lower refining cost would decrease the "wells to wheels" factor also.

I just bought a Cruze diesel and love it. Much nicer to drive on the highway than the Fusion hybrid I compared it to. Alas, I could not afford a Tesla:(

Phil wrote:

Nice article!

I'd love to see diesel cars factored into the comparison.

They are a slowly growing component, but get excellent gas mileage that competes with the best all gasoline hybrids but don't have the battery issues. However, I'm not sure if other factors influence their overall output. With North American diesel, they still have some particulate problems (although far improved now).


Bias article

Barry has deliberately made his post very difficult to follow, read, and understand. He uses extreme examples: a small electric vehicle with a large SUV. Why didn't he use a truck or jet? Because that would be too obvious and extreme.

Any writer that cannot be objective and puts his or her own spin in creating and distributing statistics should be ignored. That's what I am doing with Barry and his twisted article.

Diesel what?

Stephen Douglas wrote:

I bought my VW golf clean diesel in 2011. At that time, I did a footprint comparison. It came out at par with hybrids. I get between 900 and 1100 km per tank (I can drive from Toronto to Montreal and bank on one tankful). How is that missing from your comparison?

Aside from Barry's post being one sided and likely endorsed by our wonderful Mayor Robertson (cough, cough, hack, hack); diesel vehicles are nasty polluters. Their particulate matter is larger than regular gasoline and even the cleanest "new diesel" vehicles are dirtier over the same gasoline counterpart. More importantly, diesel exhausts is more deadlier to breath than gasoline exhaust.

Now, if we want to discuss BIODIESEL? This is where we should be heading for, not electric vehicles. Nevermind the extra cost of buying an electric vehicle vs the same dino or gasoline powered car. On average, it would take someone about 5 years to break-even in the extra cost of buying and owning an electric car or diesel car vs the same gasoline car.. Then again, people don't factor in economics in one of the most expensive cities in the world!

marginal grid emissions

It appears the author is using AVERAGE grid emissions in the analysis. When considering the impact of a *new* load on the electrical grid, one should use the MARGINAL grid emissions.

To see why this is so, consider a thought experiment. Let's say you've added a new room to your house. Your activities in the existing house will remain unchanged, but you decide you'll keep a new light on in the new room. How does the electrical grid service this new need?

Let's consider a grid that is service by wind, solar, and coal. What was the state of the grid before your addition? Well, we know that the power available from the wind and solar is already being fully consumed. Whenever the wind blows and the sun shines, these produce as much power as their capacity will allow. Since these sources have no fuel cost, it always makes sense to use their output. So how can the grid produce the additional electricity to satisfy a new load? The *only* possibility is to burn more coal. Thus, the incremental emissions of that new light - the grid's marginal emissions factor - is 100% coal.

Note that this analysis holds even if you increase the amount of wind and solar on the grid. As long as the marginal producer is coal (or natural gas or some other dispatchable generator) the incremental emissions are fully from that source.

I know this truth is not what many people want to hear. I cannot help with that.

However, I can say that all is not lost. When it comes to EVs we *know* that we're reducing petrol consumption. We are also changing the transportation infrastructure in a way that allows a clearer energy picture to emerge *over the long term*. Furthermore, if legislation requires (and is implemented!) the grid to contain a certain minimum proportion of renewables (or a maximum average grid emissions factor), the we can ignore my analysis and use the average grid emissions factor. This is because each new grid load forces a re-balancing to meet the requirement. For example, if the law requires "50% renewables", then my new light will result in new wind or solar capacity to meet half of my new demand, with the other half fulfilled by coal.




With articles like this - detailed, easy to read, easy to understand, and TIMELY -- the incomparable Barry Saxifrage has carved out an invaluable niche for himself in the world of useful information-sharing. 

In our era of wholesale suppression of honest data by governments and big business, especially in Canada under Stephen Harper -- and especially when it comes to information relevant to climate change, fossil fuels and alternative/renewable energy sources! -- Barry sets a very high standard for intensive research, utter transparency and the ingenious and creative use of digital technology.

Thank you! 

I advise all readers to keep this article to hand, and send it far and wide. It is brilliant!

Now, thanks to your background information,  I'm going to try and pedal my bike for as long as I can this year, and as much as I can. And limit air travel to a bare minimum. And use the Sky Train only in Vancouver.

And look into getting an electric vehicle when next we make a purchase.

Who Killed The Electric Car -

 The Passionate Eye Sunday Showcase ...
Fashioned like a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery, Who Killed the Electric Car?sets out to uncover who was responsible for the demise of the EV-1, an electric ...

I Bruce Voigt do CONFESS

It has now become political to whether or not Cell Phones, Power Lines etc are or are not responsible for health related problems.

First off, every one who thinks they do, will all agree that these emit a harmfull energy. "WRONG"

It is NOT the energy emitting that is the problem and "there is a problem".
It IS the ENERGY that these absorb, robbing cells of the body of this needed energy!

The future electric car! Hmmmmmmm






sorry about typos

Apologies for the messy typing in my post. The only important typo is in the third sentence of the final paragraph where I wrote "clearer" instead of "cleaner".

(The first sentence of the third paragraph should also show "serviced" rather than "service". There is a "the" where there should be a "then" in the final paragraph.)