Hybrids vs. electrics: Cars’ climate-friendliness questioned

Electric cars are currently more damaging to the climate than some other vehicle options, mainly because of the emissions involved with producing large batteries, according to a report from Climate Central.

The nonprofit research organization acknowledged that electric cars have helped to lower U.S. vehicle emissions because they are consuming electricity produced increasingly from natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal.

“But when all the carbon emissions associated with building and driving electric and high-mileage gasoline cars are included in the analysis, the all-electric advantage goes up in smoke,” Climate Central said. “In the vast majority of states, the significant carbon debt associated with the production of electric car batteries outweighs recent reductions in carbon emissions from power generation and efficiency improvements of some electric vehicles.”

Battery production for electric cars can create a carbon debt of 10,000 to 40,000 pounds “that can only be overcome after tens, or even hundreds of thousands of miles of driving and recharging from clean energy sources,” Climate Central said.

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The Toyota Prius Hybrid and the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid models had the lowest overall climate impact in every state, when emissions from production and usage were taken into account for cars driven 50,000 miles or less, Climate Central said. The all-electric Honda Fit ranked second in some states, according to the research.

But in states where the electric grid has especially low carbon emissions, such as Washington, which uses large amounts of hydroelectric power, the purchase and usage of an efficient electric car would have a lower climate impact than other options after 100,000 miles, the research said.

If the group ignored the emissions from vehicle and battery production, electric cars would have a clear advantage, especially since many states have been using more natural gas for energy production in recent years. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal, when burned for electricity.

“In many states the rapid substitution to natural gas from coal and the adoption of substantial amounts of wind power have measurably decarbonized the grid from 2010 to 2012,” Climate Central said. “These changes have shifted the balance of carbon emissions in favor of recharging electrics vs. burning gasoline in high-mileage hybrids like the Prius, if car manufacturing emissions are excluded.”

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The findings extended across all vehicle categories, including the luxury market in which the all-electric Tesla Model S has drawn considerable attention. The Model S was the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year.

“For luxury sedans, in 46 states the gas-powered Lexus ES hybrid is better for the climate than the electric Tesla Model S, over the first 100,000 miles the car is driven,” Climate Central said.

The report did not mention new, fuel-efficient models of diesel vehicles. You can view the vehicle rankings by state in the interactive feature below, from Climate Central.

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