Zero Emissions Does Not Mean Zero Environmental Impact

What You Don't Know About Your 'Green' Car

car driving in foggy forest
5 min read

At Quoted, we love cars and driving and being on the go, but we also believe reducing the environmental impact of cars (and other modes of transportation) is critical to the future of transportation. But, companies that stand to profit–auto manufacturers and tech companies–are often the loudest voices we hear in the discussion of what defines a “green” car. It’s important to appeal to automakers to make cars truly greener–to go beyond a catchy marketing tagline or a feel-good message and develop technology and vehicles that sustain our environment.

Flower blooming next to highway

Are BEVs As Green As We Thought?

There’s no simple answer when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of passenger vehicles. Take battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs): while they can eliminate tailpipe emissions—which is crucial for reducing the environmental impact of passenger vehicles—BEVs can still have an environmental impact that, depending on several factors (like where they get their energy, for example) might be quite significant.

Even if BEVs are powered by completely clean energy (like solar power), the environmental impact won’t be zero, and neither will the impact of other green technologies, even those that can boast zero tailpipe emissions.

Cars as we now know them impact the environment in several ways, and as automobile manufacturing evolves to eliminate fossil fuels, they’ll need to reduce the impact of other pollutants, too—and consumers must demand these improvements.

Pieces of tires and brakes can end up suspended in the air, contributing to particle pollution.

Beyond Exhaust: Particle Emissions Pollution

Gases aren’t the only pollutants. Small particles and liquid droplets that end up suspended in the air from tire and brake wear and tear, and even dust kicked up on the road while driving, all contribute to what some experts call “particle pollution,” writes Digital Trends.

Particle pollution exposure impacts human health, too: “Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease; nonfatal heart attacks; irregular heartbeat; aggravated asthma; decreased lung function; and increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing,” Digital Trends writes, citing evidence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Electric cars produce about the same particle emissions as gas and diesel cars.

Engine exhaust is a type of particle emission, but in traditional gas-powered vehicles, exhaust only accounts for between 10 and 15 percent of total particle emissions (in newer, more environmentally conscious vehicles). BEVs, of course, produce no tailpipe exhaust.

Due to their increased weight, electric cars produce about the same particle emissions as gas and diesel cars, a new study published by the journal ScienceDirect revealed.

The study conducted by ScienceDirect found that when it comes to total particle emissions (from exhaust emissions—of which BEVs produce none—and all other sources), BEVs are only one to three percent cleaner than vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean electric vehicles are only one to three percent cleaner than gasoline-powered vehicles on a whole. Particle emissions, just like exhaust emissions, are just one part of the story.

pumping gas

Reducing Particle Polution

One of the biggest reasons BEVs produce so many particle emissions is their weight, writes Digital Trends, and the biggest reason for their weight is their batteries. BEVs are now an average of 24 percent heavier than gasoline-powered vehicles. With lighter batteries, particle emissions would decrease, making for much cleaner running vehicles.

But particle emissions, just like fuel type, are just pieces of the environmental impact puzzle. Energy is another important factor to consider when reducing vehicle pollutants: reliable clean energy, such as solar, wind, natural gas, and even nuclear energy, will help EVs reduce their environmental impact as well. Until that happens, some researchers “suggest that a regional approach to clean vehicle standards makes more sense than national standards that effectively require electric cars across the board. Minnesota could go for hybrids and California could go for electric vehicles,” writes Scientific American. In fact, where energy is produced by coal-burning plants, hybrid cars actually produce the least emissions (even lower than EVs), and the U.S. is moving toward cleaner natural gas and away from coal.

On a whole, green technologies are steps in the right direction and will hopefully help lead to a cleaner environment. But consumers with purchasing power must demand changes in all types of pollutants–including particle emissions and energy source–along with the reduction in CO2 tailpipe emissions.