How Do Hybrid and Electric Cars Help the Environment?

By Chris Hardesty 07/11/2023 4:00pm

An electric car charging cord and a forest

The environmental benefit of hybrid and electric cars is a central issue in the debate between advocates and critics of such vehicles. One thing is certain: Operating a fully electric vehicle (EV) produces no tailpipe emissions, which is good for the environment.

Disagreements over statistics and complicated mathematics will continue as automakers work toward lofty goals and shift to all-electric models that don’t use oil or burn gasoline in a fight against climate change. Meanwhile, does it help the environment to drive a hybrid using a gas engine and an electric motor or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that can travel some distance using only battery power?

Types of EVs.
  • Hybrids are popular because drivers reduce their carbon footprint and enjoy saving money on gas. However, every trip in a hybrid burns gasoline and sends exhaust into the atmosphere. Even the best and most fuel-efficient hybrids create air pollution — although less than a gas guzzler — and use oil in their engines.
  • PHEV drivers also enjoy gas savings, but the environmental benefit of operating a plug-in hybrid is greater than driving a traditional hybrid. Depending on the model, some PHEVs can go 40 miles or more without using any gas. Relying only on power from the PHEV’s rechargeable battery creates no tailpipe emissions. When the battery charge depletes, the vehicle uses its combustion engine.

Of course, the environmental friendliness of an electric car depends on how much fossil fuel is burned to create the electricity that charges its battery pack. Environmental benefits are less when coal-fired plants make the power. Electric grids that use a mix of lower-emissions renewables such as wind, hydro, and solar will charge cleaner electrified vehicles.

Statistics vary, but some studies suggest it takes about two years of average driving for an electric car to become carbon-neutral and make up for its carbon-intensive manufacturing. The more a zero-emission vehicle is on the road, the better it is for the environment.

While direct environmental benefits might take a while to realize, driving an EV immediately reduces noise pollution because of its quiet electric motor.