The environmental and health impacts of conventional and electric vehicles
Thanks to the environmentalist movement and increasing innovation, electric cars are taking off! Just a few years ago you may not have seen many electric cars on the road, but because of the growing market and interest in finding a solution to the environmental damages of conventional cars, car manufacturers are making more and more electric vehicles. Now that these cars are getting more affordable, people interested in buying them are starting to wonder if they are really better for the environment compared to gasoline powered cars. Many are concerned with the batteries used in electric cars and how the electricity is generated. What if the electricity is generated from burning coal? Are electric cars really better for the environment and how about our health?
To answer this question we need to break down the environmental damages of these different types of cars and also look into how they affect our health. Conventional vehicles are known for causing serious damages to human health through particle and gas emissions (3), but are there any health impacts of electric cars?
What is the difference between electric and conventional vehicles?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the environmental and health differences between electric and conventional (combustion) cars, we should get into the actual differences between the cars themselves. Check out the chart below to read about the different types of vehicles on the market!
Environmental and health concerns of combustion vehicles
The biggest concern with conventional vehicles is what comes out of the tailpipe! Conventional vehicles are notorious for emitting tons of dangerous chemicals, some of which are carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter (6). This chart breaks down the different tailpipe emissions and their environmental and health impacts.
It's pretty clear that the environmental damages go hand in hand with the health concerns associated with conventional combustion vehicles. Besides the impacts from the emissions, the lifecycle of a car has other detrimental environmental effects. Since mining is needed to source materials to manufacture a car, large amounts of land degradation and a decrease in biodiversity can be attributed to cars. New landfills have had to be created in order to dispose of old vehicles (9).
Other than the car itself, there are also emissions and health concerns that come from the gasoline needed to power conventional vehicles. There are several airborne contaminants and emissions from the machinery and vehicles used to extract, process, and transport the gasoline that can lead to similar health issues mentioned in the chart above. And besides the airborne emissions, the process of extracting oil from the Earth can be very messy and lead to water and land contamination (15). Different heavy metals are released into the air and soil affecting people who live directly in the area or allowing it to bioaccumulate in the surrounding plants and animals. Being exposed to crude oil or the heavy metals released from the extraction process can cause psychological disorders, blood disorders, reproductive and developmental issues, respiratory issues, and cancer (14).
All of these issues and negative impacts that come along with conventional cars are the reason manufacturers and engineers created the electric vehicle. But there is still the burning question: are electric vehicles really that much better?
Environmental and health concerns of electric vehicles
Many scientists have done life cycle analyses of electric vehicles, and conclude that electric vehicles, whether they are fully electric or hybrids, are better for the environment than conventional cars (6,16). This is mainly because electric vehicles have no emissions coming out of the tailpipe. Besides the difference in tailpipe emissions, the two types of cars are relatively similar in terms of how they are built and then disposed of. The metals are mined, the parts are assembled, and eventually the car gets recycled or put into a landfill (6). However, one aspect conventional cars do not have to deal with is the recycling and disposal of electric batteries.
The most common type of battery used in electric cars is a lithium-ion battery (12). This is the same type of batteries used in power tools, electronics, smartphones, and other common household products but just on a much bigger scale. Lithium batteries are made of lithium, cobalt, and nickel, all metals that are very water and energy intensive to extract, creating a concern for the long term sustainability of these batteries. The mining of cobalt also poses an ethical concern due to the lack of environmental safeguards, labor, health issues, and political uncertainty in the Dominican Republic of Congo, which supplies about 58% of the world's cobalt (10). As of right now lithium ion batteries are rarely recycled compared to other types of batteries on the market with some estimates at around a 5% or less recycling rate (13). In order for electric cars to be a completely sustainable option the rate of recycling needs to be much higher and the issues with the extraction of metals also needs to be more environmentally friendly and less of an ethical concern. Thankfully there are many organizations and government agencies working on solving these issues and working to create better recycling programs for these batteries (10).
Another concern people have with buying an electric car is about where they are getting their power from. If your car is hooked up to an electrical grid powered by coal is the car still more environmentally friendly? The answer is: absolutely! Most electric cars still emit less emissions and require less energy overall even if they are being powered by a nonrenewable energy source (6,16). As of 2020 the U.S. had a majority of its energy needs met by nonrenewable resources such as natural gas which accounted for 40% of energy use, coal at 19%, and nuclear at 20%, while renewable resources accounted for only 20% of energy use (17). But thankfully energy sources like coal have been on the decline due to the country's transition to more renewable energy sources, meaning most electric vehicles in the upcoming future will be powered by green energy reducing their overall emissions even more! (17)
Benefits to owning an electric vehicle
Besides the benefit of cleaner air and a healthier planet, there are also a lot of financial benefits to owning an electric vehicle. Studies have found that in some circumstances, electric cars are much more cost-competitive than conventional cars when considering the long-term costs of ownership (8). In many states there are financial incentives to purchase an electric vehicle and depending on where you live, those incentives could take thousands of dollars off the initial purchasing price! Check out this link and see what the incentives are in your state. Data also shows that the larger the electric car and the more it is being driven, the more cost competitive the car is (8). Meaning that if you drive a lot and have a big family to haul around, an electric car would be a perfect fit!
Another bonus is that because the electric car market has grown so much over the years many of the electric car models are in the same exact price range as conventional cars and because you won't have to buy gas, that's just extra savings! Gas prices are only going to go up as there is less and less gas to be drilled, so as time goes on electric cars will be astronomically cheaper than conventional vehicles to maintain and use (8). And speaking of cheaper, the prices of electric car batteries are expected to continue to decrease rapidly in the next few years. This means that the most expensive aspect of an electric car will be more affordable than ever, making electric cars a great option! (10)
Plus, the availability of charging stations is increasing while at the same time the batteries are lasting longer and longer. The average electric car can go over 200 miles on a full charge which means you should easily be able to make it to another charging station or do your weekly routine without a problem. If you are concerned your area is lacking enough charging stations, check out maps in your area to see where the nearest charging stations are to make sure it won't be too much of a hassle for you.
So what should you do?
If you are in the market for a new car, think about getting an electric one. Whether you are buying a new or a slightly used electric car it will save you a lot of money down the road and is also a healthier option for you, the people around you, and the world!
It would be great if we could all go out and buy an electric car, but we get that buying a new car isn't an option for a lot of people. But just because you can't buy the newest Tesla model, doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to minimize your emissions.
- Drive less!
- Take public transportation or ride a bike to work even just one day a week
- Be efficient with your driving. Do all errands in one day instead of spreading it out
- Carpool to work or school
- Get a smog check so your car is running efficiently and not releasing extra emissions
- Ma, H., Balthasar, F., Tait, N., Riera-Palou, X., & Harrison, A. (2012). A new comparison between the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of battery electric vehicles and internal combustion vehicles. Energy Policy, 44, 160–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2012.01.034
- Electric Vehicle Basics. (n.d.). Energy.Gov. Retrieved May 15, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/electricvehicles/electric-vehicle-basics
- Manisalidis, I., Stavropoulou, E., Stavropoulos, A., & Bezirtzoglou, E. (2020). Environmental and Health Impacts of Air Pollution: A Review. Frontiers in Public Health, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.00014
- Weldon, P., Morrissey, P., & O'Mahony, M. (2018). Long-term cost of ownership comparative analysis between electric vehicles and internal combustion engine vehicles. Sustainable Cities and Society, 39, 578–591. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scs.2018.02.024
- Simmons, D. R. (n.d.). ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND RENEWABLE ENERGY U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY. 8.
- Iclodean, C., Varga, B., Burnete, N., Cimerdean, D., & Jurchiş, B. (2017). Comparison of Different Battery Types for Electric Vehicles. IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, 252, 012058. https://doi.org/10.1088/1757-899X/252/1/012058
- Sonoc, A., Jeswiet, J., & Soo, V. K. (2015). Opportunities to Improve Recycling of Automotive Lithium Ion Batteries. Procedia CIRP, 29, 752–757. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procir.2015.02.039
- Ramirez, M. I., Arevalo, A. P., Sotomayor, S., & Bailon-Moscoso, N. (2017). Contamination by oil crude extraction – Refinement and their effects on human health. Environmental Pollution, 231, 415–425. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2017.08.017
- Johnston, J. E., Lim, E., & Roh, H. (2019). Impact of upstream oil extraction and environmental public health: A review of the evidence. Science of The Total Environment, 657, 187–199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.11.483