Over 97 percent of scientists agree that humans cause climate change, according to The Nature Conservancy. So, it’s unsurprising that many people are taking steps to decrease their personal environmental impact.

For some, this means getting behind the wheel of an electric vehicle. In 2022, American EV sales surged to 6 percent of new vehicles sold. That’s according to 8 Billion Trees, a carbon offset organization.

If a climate-conscious vehicle is a top priority for you, consider how driving an EV impacts your carbon footprint. Though there’s a carbon cost for manufacturing and charging EVs, studies indicate their lifetime carbon footprint is far lower than driving a conventional car.

What is a carbon footprint?

You don’t need a degree in environmental science to drive electric and help the planet. But understanding how your time behind the wheel of an EV affects your carbon footprint can help to make you a more empowered consumer.

Carbon footprint is the amount of emissions that you, as an individual, are responsible for releasing into the environment. Carbon emissions add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, contributing to human-driven climate change.

Humans can increase their carbon footprint through many daily tasks such as cooking, heating their homes, using electricity and, of course, driving a vehicle.

Every time you drive your gas-powered vehicle, you release carbon emissions into the air, directly increasing your carbon footprint. But your carbon footprint also includes emissions you’re indirectly responsible for — such as charging an EV using electricity produced by a coal power plant.

Does driving an electric car reduce your carbon footprint?

Whether driving electric decreases your carbon footprint is one of the most debated conversations in the space.

One camp insists that driving an EV will dramatically decrease your overall carbon footprint due to removing vehicle emissions. The other camp points out emissions created during the EV manufacturing process and by the power plants making electricity to charge EVs. Those offset the positive impact of driving electric, they assert.

While EVs have no tailpipe emissions, the process of making electricity to charge the vehicle can still create carbon pollution.

In a way, when you get behind the wheel of an EV, you aren’t completely removing carbon from the equation. Instead, you’re transferring your emission point to an electrical power source. Depending on where you live, that source could be a coal power plant.

In other words, you’re still consuming energy and potentially contributing to emissions when you charge and drive an EV.

Your actual emissions depend on how electricity in your ZIP code is generated. If you want a more granular view of your EV’s impacts, take advantage of The U.S. Department of Energy’s greenhouse calculator, which factors in your hometown electrical grid.

The only way to be truly emissions-free is by charging from a fully renewable source like wind or solar. But research from the EPA confirms that driving an EV will reduce your individual carbon footprint. A study from the Fuels Institute found that even with present electricity production, battery electric vehicles are less “carbon-intensive” than gas-powered vehicles after just 19,000 miles of operation.

Think of it this way: A driver behind the wheel of a 2022 Camry will emit 11,177 pounds of carbon per year. Compare that to someone driving a 2022 Hyundai Kona, an EV, which will only release 2,779 pounds of carbon in the same amount of time, according to NYSEG data.

How to calculate your carbon emissions
To compare and contrast how driving an EV will impact your footprint, use an emissions calculator that finds CO2 based on vehicle MPG and miles driven.  

EV batteries impact on the environment

As critics note, manufacturing an EV’s battery creates more pollution than manufacturing a typical gasoline vehicle. But according to the EPA, lifetime carbon emissions will be lower with an EV — even considering battery production — due to the removal of any tailpipe emissions.

For example, a sedan powered by a battery will have a higher initial carbon footprint than a conventional sedan. But after an average of one and half years, according to research published in IOP Science, the two footprints match because the EV does not continue to release carbon, whereas the gas-powered sedan does. From that point on, the EV will boast a lower lifetime carbon footprint than the ICE vehicle.

And many companies are working towards a recycling system to reduce the carbon cost of producing batteries. This recycling push will lower emissions created during the production process and lower overall negative environmental impacts.

How to finance an eco-friendly vehicle

Electric vehicles usually carry a higher upfront cost than a gas-powered option. The average new EV cost $58,385 in February 2023, according to Kelley Blue Book. But this higher price tag shouldn’t prevent you from buying an EV. Consider the following steps to secure an EV auto loan.

1. Check your credit standing. As with any financial product, securing an auto loan requires lenders to take a look at your credit history. The better your credit score is, the lower your rates will be, which is especially important as EVs tend to cost more.

2. Prequalify for loan. Prequalifying lets you see rates and terms without damaging your score with a hard credit pull.

3. Weigh at least three options. The lender market is expansive. To find the best loan for your needs, it is wise to compare at least three quotes. Consider online lenders, banks and credit unions when shopping around.

4. Appy for the loan. Before you start filling out the application, it is smart to prepare to share information on yourself, the vehicle and insurance.

5. Sign off. Once you have found the best loan for your needs, you can begin making payments and navigating toward full EV ownership.

Not all EVs have luxury prices
When shopping for an EV, consider checking out legacy brands that boast more accessible prices. The Nissan Leaf, for example, starts at $28,040.

Is it more environmentally friendly to buy a new car?

Even if you can’t afford an electric vehicle right now, choosing between a new or used gas car can impact pollution. When purchasing a used vehicle, you are avoiding additional pollution created during the manufacturing process. But the older the vehicle is, the worse the fuel economy will likely be. And poorer fuel economy will mean an increase in fuel exhaust emissions.

In the grand scheme of your environmental impact, buying a used over a new car to skip the manufacturing step is only a minor factor in your long-term carbon footprint. This means that over the lifetime of driving a vehicle, a newer car is the greener of the two options as it will tend to boast better MPG and technology.

EV tax credits
You can offset the cost of buying an EV by taking advantage of tax credits. Check out our guide on making the most of the credits.

Driving electric helps your wallet and the planet

As the summer season approaches and our planet rapidly warms, consider switching to an EV when buying your next vehicle. You won’t just make small steps to improve the climate by lowering your carbon footprint. You’ll also benefit from the added perks of money saved and advanced technology.