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EVs may produce more emissions during manufacturing, but they quickly catch up

Electric vehicles are here in full force, and while they’re still more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts, prices are slowly, but surely coming down. In fact, EVs are likely to be just as affordable as internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in the next few years. But like anything, there are pros and cons to buying an EV over an ICE vehicle. For example, on average, it’s cheaper to charge an electric vehicle than to fill the gas tank of an ICE vehicle — not to mention the lower costs of maintenance.

At face value, having a smaller impact on the environment is also a tick in the EV column. But as many have been rightfully pointing out, the impact that EVs have on the environment is a little more complicated than the simple fact that they’re not using gasoline and themselves emitting carbon dioxide. For example, what about the emissions involved with manufacturing an electric vehicle compared to a gas-powered vehicle? What about the materials in those huge batteries?

The good news? Plenty of environmental studies have been conducted on all of these aspects of building and owning a car. Here’s a look.


Before you can even start to think of building and selling a car, you have to have the materials to do so. There are plenty of similar materials in both electric and ICE vehicles — but there are also vastly different ones.

It is true to say that manufacturing an electric vehicle produces more emissions than manufacturing a gas-powered car, and the difference largely comes down to the production of the battery that powers an EV. That, however, is likely to continue to change — especially as battery technology developers and manufacturers rely less on rare earth materials that require a lot of effort to mine, refine, and export.

Ford EVs at a Tesla Supercharger station.

The exact difference in emissions between electric vehicles and gas vehicles is a little hard to quantify — especially given the fact that it varies from country to country, brand to brand, and year to year. The 2023 Polestar and Rivian Pathway Report, from management consulting firm Kearny, pegs average electric vehicle production at the equivalent of 14 tons of carbon dioxide (5 tons from battery manufacturing and 9 tons from the rest of the vehicle), compared to 10 tons for internal combustion engine vehicles. That equates to around 40% more emissions from production of an electric vehicle. Other studies note an even wider gap — for example, the Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Technologies) model estimates electric vehicle production as producing 80% more greenhouse gases compared to the production of gas-powered cars.

In other words, as they roll off the production line, electric vehicles have a so-called “carbon debt” compared to their gas-powered counterparts.

Car ownership

Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for them to make up that debt — after which, they’re easily more environmentally friendly.

Of course, how long it takes electric cars to catch up does depend on where they get their power from. Charging from solar panels is much more environmentally friendly than charging from power generated by a coal plant, for example. But, even in a worst-case scenario, most studies indicate that electric cars catch up to ICE vehicles in under two years, taking into account the production and transportation of gasoline.

Teslas parked using the Tesla Superchargers.

According to a report from Recurrent, when charging a car using the one of the “dirtiest” energy grids in the U.S. (the NYLI eGrid), it takes EVs 1.9 years to reach carbon parity with ICE vehicles. On one of the cleanest grids in the U.S., which is the CAMX eGrid, it only takes 1.4 years. The ranking of grid cleanliness has changed since this report, but the point remains the same — even when you charge using the most carbon-emissive grids in the country, you’ll reach the same emissions as an average gas-powered car within a couple of years when considering the emissions that an ICE vehicle emits over its lifetime.

That’s not to mention the fact that many people charge their car with completely clean energy, through solar panels and home batteries. That doesn’t take into account the emissions associated with manufacturing solar panels and home batteries, but even then, it takes even less time for EVs to catch up.

It’s still more complicated

It’s important to mention a few things when discussing the impact that EV production has compared to non-electric vehicles. Perhaps the first, and most obvious, has to do with the materials involved with EV production. Famously, electric vehicles rely heavily on rare earth materials, which are difficult to mine in large quantities compared to other minerals.

Mining rare earth materials is associated with a few issues, apart from greenhouse gas emissions. For example, studies have linked mining rare earth materials with negative effects on human health. Neodymium dust, for example, can irritate the eyes and skin, and even cause liver damage over longer periods of exposure. That’s not to mention the fact that many rare earth mines are associated with humans rights abuses. An AP investigation from 2022 linked Myanmar’s illicit rare earth mines to 78 global companies. This may not represent a quantifiable impact on the environment itself — but it’s clearly a massive issue that must be addressed.

Rare Earth Mineral (REEs) mining.
Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

There is some effort to fix this, though. Batteries are being developed that don’t rely on rare earth metals at all, and while more research is needed, and companies need to be willing to adopt potentially more expensive technologies, raised awareness is pushing the issue.

Separate from rear earth materials in general, these studies also don’t typically take into account what might happen to a battery after the lifespan of an electric vehicle. Battery recycling programs are being implemented that will lower the emissions associated with producing an electric vehicle and allow manufacturers to reuse at least some of the rare earth materials.


The numbers are pretty clear. Yes, there are more emissions associated with manufacturing an electric car than a typical ICE car. However, even on the worst power grids in the U.S., ICE vehicles produce so much more greenhouse gas that EVs catch up and surpass them within a few years.

One number we haven’t discussed yet — lifetime emissions. Over 15 years of use, Recurrent estimates average EV emissions to be around 30 grams of CO2 per mile driven — while average ICE vehicles, with a gas mileage of 27 miles per gallon, emit almost 80 grams per mile. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that in 15 years, the electrical grid will hopefully be a whole lot cleaner than it is today.

Yeah, it’s not even close. The idea that electric vehicles are just as bad for the environment as gas-powered vehicles due to manufacturing is a complete and total myth.

Christian de Looper
Christian’s interest in technology began as a child in Australia, when he stumbled upon a computer at a garage sale that he…
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