November 13, 2020

Are Electric Cars Really Better for the Climate?

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

We love listener mail! You've sent us some amazing notes. Some made us laugh, some made us cry, and some made us say – hey, that’s a great question! We should answer it. So this week, we dig into one of your questions, and in the process, resolve an argument for a couple who can’t decide what kind of car is better for the climate.

  • Interested in how electric vehicles stack up? This calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientist lets you compare emissions from EVs with internal combustion engine vehicles in different regions across the U.S. 
  • Transport & Environment has a similar calculator for folks in the European Union
  • If you want to check out the report discussed in this episode, comparing the environmental impacts of EVs and other vehicles, you can find it here!
  • Send us a voice memo! We love hearing from listeners! Send us your questions, Have you taken one of the actions we’ve recommended? Have some burning climate questions that just need to be answered? An episode idea you can’t wait to hear? Just have some climate feelings?! Record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. We might use it in a future episode!
  • Subscribe to the newsletter! It’s great, we promise. You can sign up here.


How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com

How to Save a Planet is hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg.

Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Bobby Lord, Billy Libby and Catherine Anderson. Full music credits can be found on our website. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Thanks to Olivia, Patrick, Molly, and all the listeners who wrote in! And special thanks to Ami Bogin and Harry Bishop, whose question inspired this episode. 

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Transcript

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. This is the podcast where we talk about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we make those things happen.


Alex: So it's been quite a week.


Ayana: Ugh. Boy, has it ever. I feel like I have an emotional hangover from this election stuff.


Alex: I don't know what I'm gonna now that I don't—that I'm not constantly refreshing vote tally websites.


Ayana: Yeah. So even though the winners have been called, we’re still trying to understand, like, exactly what happened in the election and what role climate might've played. So more on that later.


Alex: More on that later. And we have a Biden administration that is settling into place, and I'm looking forward to using this podcast as a way to dive into what the Biden administration does on climate over the next four years and beyond.


Ayana: And how that matches up with, you know, what they said they were gonna do.


Alex: Exactly. That's all to come. This week though, we're not going to be focusing on presidential politics or any of that stuff that's happening in Washington. This week, we're focusing on you: Our listeners.


Ayana: Yeah. We thought you might also need a break from this maelstrom of electoral politics, so welcome to our week of counter-programming!


Alex: [laughs] Today's episode is inspired by you, our listeners, because you guys send us lots and lots of email, which we love getting. You have, like, comments about episodes. You—sometimes you just want to thank us or, like, point out things that we got right or wrong.


Ayana: Yeah. You all are so earnest and sweet and trying to figure out how to do right by the climate. It's really wonderful.


Alex: It’s great. And a lot of times you ask us questions, or you say like, hey, could you guys do an episode on this?


Ayana: Yeah. And sometimes you all get extremely specific.


Alex: [laughs] Exactly.


Ayana: Which I am totally here for. People are requesting episodes on everything from the role of peatlands in carbon sequestration, to whether cloud-seeding is a good idea, to how we might scale renewable energy in the Midwest. And, you know, whether we might've been overlooking the role of beavers in ecosystem restoration. I mean, don't you want to know? And we might cover some of that in future episodes. So we do have a whole spreadsheet where we track your requests and recommendations.


Alex: Literally.


Ayana: There is a spreadsheet.


Alex: You're not lying. We literally have a spreadsheet where we put every single request for a show topic in the spreadsheet. And so, we take it really seriously. But on today's episode, we're gonna answer one question in particular that's come up multiple times. And in this case, in the case of the listener who wrote in, it's causing some minor relationship disputes.


Ayana: And because we care deeply about the quality of your romantic relationships, today we're gonna help resolve a couple’s disagreement over what kind of car to buy.


Alex: It's How to Save a Planet meets Loveline meets Car Talk. Coming up after these messages.


Ayana: Oh, this is the Venn diagram I did not know I was wanting. Brilliant!


***


Alex: So on today’s episode, we’re answering one question that came from a couple of listeners.


Ayana: And here to help us answer this question is our reporter, Rachel Waldholz. Hi, Rachel.


Rachel Waldholz: Hi guys.


Ayana: So Rachel, what do you have for us today? What you got?


Rachel: Well, we got a great question from a couple of listeners in Germany, which is also where I’m based. And they sent us an email earlier this fall. So I called them back to have them explain their question. And I’ll let them introduce themselves.


Amy Bogin: Okay. I’m Ami. I'm an animator, and we live in Berlin [laughs]


Rachel: They were a little nervous.


Amy Bogin: I should start over again. I'm Ami, I’m an animator. [laughs]


Harry Bishop: I’m Harry, I’m a web developer. I'm from the UK, from Cambridge.


Amy Bogin: And I'm from New Jersey.


Alex: Oh!


Ayana: Didn’t see that coming.


Alex: Jersey girl.


Harry Bishop: Yeah. We met in London about six, seven years ago, and then moved to Berlin three years ago.


Rachel: So that's Ami Bogin and Harry Bishop. And their question is about electric vehicles—or EVs for short. Specifically: Should they buy one? They don’t actually own a car at the moment. They live here in Berlin, which is pretty easy to get around using public transit or a bike or just walking. And Harry is from the UK, as he mentioned, has actually never owned a car. But Ami comes from New Jersey, which is also my ancestral homeland.


Alex: [laughs]


Rachel: And she was like, "Let's be real. At some point, we're going to have to own a car." And they're sort of thinking about moving out of the city. And so they have this argument over, like, what is the most environmentally-friendly option?


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: Right.


Amy Bogin: And my thought was that we should get an electric car, buy a new one that's, like, top of the line and doesn't emit any CO2 in any way. Yeah, but Harry's argument is, do you want to explain?


Harry Bishop: Yeah, well ...


Ayana: This is so charming.


Harry Bishop: Obviously, there's quite a lot of environmental costs that goes into making a brand new car and, like, loads of, like, rare materials that get used, like, for the computer stuff and obviously maybe it's better to just buy an old car, because we wouldn't use it very often anyway. And yeah, I guess it also depends on how renewable the country we live in, how renewable their energy is.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Harry Bishop: Because if we're just plugging it in and it's coming from a coal plant anyway, I guess that it's still not very environmentally friendly.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: Good point, Harry.


Rachel: Like, how much of a benefit do you get from an electric car if you're plugging it into a grid that's powered by coal?


Harry Bishop: Exactly. Yeah.


Ami Bogin: Yeah, there's so many things to consider with this.


Rachel: And I should mention this thought process of, like, weighing all the environmental pros and cons, they said they go through this thought process a lot for so many things.


Harry Bishop: We basically talk about it all the time. [laughs] Ami is very passionately interested in all of this stuff.


Ami Bogin: I worry about it a lot. I just like—I was reaching a point where I couldn't buy things, I couldn't go into a shop without stressing and just completely freezing up every item I held thinking, should I be doing this? Or should I not even be doing this, Or—every item. Like, for example, in the store, you know, like with butter, we’re, like, vegetarian, trying to be vegan, and the option for vegan butter's in a plastic container, whereas the non-vegan option is in paper. And then I just sit there thinking, "Oh my gosh, which one is the right one? Like, which one is less environmentally impactful? Every time. [laughs]


Ayana: I can so relate to this.


Rachel: I know.


Ayana: [laughs]


Ami Bogin: It would be so nice to have some way to know if I'm making the right decisions when I buy things. I just want to do the right thing.


Rachel: I just love that sentiment. Like, I just want to do the right thing.


Ayana: So earnest. So relatable.


Rachel: And while we cannot solve all of those consumer conundrums, we can tackle this one big question for them: you know, what kind of car should they buy?


Ayana: I'm so glad we're talking about this because I recently bought an electric car and ...


Alex: So did I. We are both proud electric vehicle owners.


Ayana: Like, I didn't actually do all this research and answer all the questions that Ami and Harry are asking, so I can't wait to hear the answers.


Alex: Yet one more benefit of hosting a podcast about the climate.


Ayana: Hopefully retroactive validation of our impulse purchases?


Alex: Exactly.


Rachel: So I called up a couple experts to see if I could get some clear answers about electric vehicles for Ami and Harry, and at least put their minds at ease on, like, this one question. Ami and Harry had asked which is better? A new electric vehicle or a used conventional gas car that you buy in your neighborhood? And we will get to that exact question, but just because we've gotten similar questions from a bunch of listeners, I first just wanted to just ask the basic question, comparing apples to apples, a new electric vehicle and a new, conventional gas-powered car. Is an electric vehicle really better for the climate and is that always true?


Rachel: And I sort of expected this to be a question with lots of variables and trade-offs, you know, depending on the grid where you live and the type of car. But this is the answer I got.


Nikolas Hill: So I think it's very clear from our findings and actually a range of other studies that have been done in this area, that electric vehicles—be they fully electric vehicles, battery electric, plug-in hybrids or fuel cell electric vehicles—are unquestionably better for our climate than conventional cars. There should be absolutely no doubt of that looking from a full life cycle analysis.


Alex: Whoa!


Ayana: I am so relieved. I thought it was going to be like, surprise! You're just a sucker who fell for the hype.


Alex: Phew. So but that's a pretty unequivocal answer. That was more unequivocal than I thought. I thought there was going to be a little bit more trade-offs.


Rachel: Yeah, I did, too. But Nikolas Hill, he’s the guy who just said there should be no doubt, he knows what he’s talking about, because he and his team just completed this giant two-year assessment looking at exactly this question. He works for Ricardo, it’s a global consulting firm, and they were asked to do this study by the European Union. And basically they asked, you know, if you look at electric vehicles and compare them with internal combustion engines, and you look at them from the cradle to the grave, so from the mining or extracting the resources, through manufacturing, through actually driving the vehicle and then disposal, where do you come out?


Rachel: And basically their conclusion was that the environmental impact of electric vehicles is significantly less even across a wide range of circumstances. Even this question that Harry had: What if you’re plugging into a grid with a lot of fossil fuels? Hill and his team looked at that, and he said they were surprised by how much of a benefit there still is.


Nikolas Hill: So even in areas where there is significant coal, you'll get a better saving. Now there are a lot of factors that affect that, but we did a whole range of different sensitivities looking at various different aspects of usage, battery sizes, the way the battery is produced, looked at the lifetime mileage, a whole range of different sensitivities on use patterns.


Rachel: Hill and his colleagues were focused on the European Union, and they found that everywhere in the EU, an electric vehicle would have less emissions than a conventional car, except in Estonia, which currently gets about two-thirds of its electricity from coal. So they said there, if you're on a grid, that's two-thirds coal, okay, then you might see more emissions from an electric vehicle. But in a place like Germany, which still has significant coal on its grid, you're seeing something like 40 percent less emissions from an electric vehicle. And Germany is the closest equivalent within the EU to sort of the energy mix in the US in terms of how much coal is on the grid.


Alex: Wow.


Nikolas Hill: It's very clear that EVs have—do better for the climate, and also those benefits are expected to increase in the future as the electricity grid decarbonizes and also as manufacturing decarbonizes in general, battery technology improves.


Ayana: I am so glad that it is this clear.


Rachel: I know, right? Now Hill did say there is one part of the life cycle where conventional gas-powered cars do better than electric vehicles, and that's when they’re being built. Because producing the batteries for electric vehicles is a really energy-intensive process, which leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing a conventional car.


Rachel: But that's just one part of the life cycle. And it’s outweighed over time by the actual use of the vehicle, because driving an electric vehicle generates so much less in the way of emissions. And there are two big reasons why electric vehicles have lower emissions. The first is they're powered by the electric grid, not by fossil fuels. And as we add more and more renewable energy to our electric grids, they emit less and less in the way of greenhouse gases.


Ayana: So it's like this virtuous cycle, right? Where the cleaner the grid gets, the cleaner your electric car gets. Whereas with a gas car, it's just always gonna stay dirty, no matter how clean the grid ends up getting.


Rachel: Right. And then the second reason that electric vehicles have lower emissions, even in places that still have significant fossil fuels on the grid, is because the electric engine is actually just more efficient than the internal combustion engine. So you're wasting less energy in the process of running the car.


Alex: Yeah. I mean, if you think about it, a gas powered car is literally like a series of controlled explosions happening inside the engine block. And some of the energy from those explosions is moving the pistons up and down, which moves the car, but a lot of that energy is wasted. It's just making the engine really hot, and then you have to spend more energy to make the hot engine cooler. And all that energy that you're heating the engine and cooling it down with, that's wasted energy.


Rachel: Right, exactly.


Alex: But I do have one question, Rachel, because you know, Ami and Harry, they weren't talking about a new electric car versus a new gas-powered car. They were asking about a used gas-powered car.


Rachel: Yeah. So I put that question to Nik Hill, and here's what he said.


Nikolas Hill: I'm not sure it's really the right question, in some ways. Clearly once a car is new and manufactured and purchased, then the impacts of that stage are then locked in until the end of the life of the vehicle. So what is important then is, is that for that particular vehicle is used in the most efficient way until it reaches the end of its life. I mean, maybe a better way to phrase the question, you know, actually think about it, I mean, there are a lot of more EVs already in the vehicle park now. So actually why not consider buying a second-hand electric car instead and help drive demand for used EVs?


Ayana: That’s a great alternative.


Alex: There you go.


Ayana: I’m into it.


Rachel: So Hill is basically suggesting a way for both Ami and Harry to be right, you know? He says yes, you should probably get an electric vehicle, but get a used one if you can. And when I called Ami and Harry back, they were pretty pleased with that answer.


Ami Bogin: Yeah, that's true.


Harry Bishop: Yeah, that's a good idea. Thanks, Nik.


Ami Bogin: I mean, it's so good to hear because I—I've kind of always wanted an electric vehicle. I don't know, they seem so cool. One day in the future, that's what we'll get.


Harry Bishop: Yeah, definitely.


Ami Bogin: I, I kind of thought that there would just be no answers, or no easy answers. It's like, really cool to get peace of mind on an issue that’s been like ...


Harry Bishop: Yeah, there's at least one small thing, which you just know for a fact now. So ...


Ami Bogin: It feels good when you're constantly thinking of, like, the climate crisis, and how you're, like, a part of it. It's good to know, like, one exact thing.


Alex: It's so nice when there is an answer.


Ayana: Yeah. An easy and clear one.


Alex: And the answer you wanted.


Ayana: Also that. When you get the answer you were hoping was the answer, that's the best.


Alex: That is the best. So I'm really glad that we could help Harry and Ami answer this question.


Ayana: Yeah. Another satisfied listener.


Alex: So it seems clear that in terms of the climate, in terms of carbon emissions, buying an electric vehicle is better than the alternative, is better than buying a gas car, even if the gas car is used. But I've heard a lot of questions about, like, the other environmental impacts of electric cars. Specifically, I've heard there's a lot of environmental problems with the batteries that power these cars.


Ayana: Oh, yeah. This is absolutely worth talking about.


Rachel: Yeah. So there are big concerns about electric vehicle batteries, and specifically about some of the materials that go into making the batteries, which are only found in certain parts of the world. And there are big issues with both the environmental impact, but also with human rights abuses in the way that those materials are mined.


Rachel: So like for instance in Chile, lithium mining is using up a huge amount of water resources in a really dry region, and that's threatening local farmers. And the UN has reported on human rights abuses and even child labor at cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So those are not small, right? Those are really big issues that the industry needs to solve, so that the transition to electric vehicles doesn't come at the cost of some of the world's most vulnerable people.


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: Yeah, absolutely. And this rush to produce more batteries is also a driver of the desire to expand mining to the deep sea in places that we don't even understand yet what the ecological effects would be. So this—this whole deep sea mining thing is, unsurprisingly, really concerning to me.


Alex: And I think it's important, though, to compare the negative effects of these batteries and the mining that goes into making them with fossil fuel extraction, which also has a bunch of serious issues with that as well, right?


Rachel: Yeah, of course. I mean, the extraction, refining and burning of fossil fuels leads to all kinds of environmental and public health problems. And when I raised the issues around batteries specifically with Nikolas Hill, you know, he told me that it’s really important to put those problems into context, and weigh them against the much bigger problems associated with fossil fuels and global warming.


Nikolas Hill: Even if you were just to consider the issue of climate change, I think the extent of the global impacts on both humans and the environment is just so huge in scale, that the benefits of electrification and electric vehicles really outweigh some of the other smaller concerns. It doesn’t mean to forget about them. The attention needs to be on kind of addressing those issues and making sure that they are minimized as far as possible.


Rachel: And Hill said there’s just a ton of research right now looking at ways to minimize those problems. You know, everything from reducing the use of materials like cobalt, to finding whole new ways to make batteries. And while there’s no guarantee, he's says he’s really optimistic based on how quickly the battery industry has evolved just in the last five or ten years that they’ll be able to come up with some solutions.


Ayana: That's great. We like solutions.


Rachel: Well, and one potential solution is actually better recycling, which would both reduce waste and also potentially limit the amount of new materials that need to be mined. The European Union is actually working to develop a set of regulations to govern exactly this, you know? And try to push the auto and tech industries to innovate and make batteries with less of an environmental footprint.


Ayana: We also like good policy.


Alex: So to recap ...


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: It sounds like what you are saying, Rachel, is that electric vehicles are in fact better than gas from a climate perspective, from an overall environmental perspective, in pretty much every instance—unless maybe you live in Estonia.


Ayana: [laughs] But I think it's also important to add, like, the answer isn't that everyone should, like, run out and go buy an electric vehicle.


Alex: Right. Like, that's not the sole answer, anyway.


Rachel: Right. Exactly. And experts say that electric vehicles can play a big role in cutting emissions from transportation, but they're definitely not a silver bullet. That said, they are a big part of our greenhouse gas emissions. You know, in the US, transportation is responsible for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and more than half of that comes from passenger vehicles. So we need to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles, both by having lower emission vehicles, and by finding alternatives to individual vehicles to get around. o that means investing in public transit, bike infrastructure, pedestrian infrastructure, you know?


Alex: Bike lanes, bullet trains.


Ayana: High speed rail, please.


Alex: So important.


Ayana: Pretty please. I want it so bad.


Rachel: Yes. All of those as alternatives to just driving yourself around in your personal car.


Alex: Right.


Rachel: But when you are driving around in your personal car, better if it's an electric car.


Ayana: I think this is the hard part about all of these climate solutions that we talk about, is that we really need all of them.


Alex: Right.


Rachel: Yeah.


Ayana: The challenge is we need electric cars and we need better public transit and we need more bike lanes and we need to transform the grid off of fossil fuels, and we need more efficient buildings, and all of it at once. And so I think I don't say that to sort of overwhelm people, but to say, you know, how can we multitask or each pick one solution and contribute to it in some way? We don't all have to do everything, but we should each do something.


Alex: Yeah. And I think also, like, there's some sort of, like, helpful power in that way of thinking about it. I don't think it's actually overwhelming. I think it actually sort of takes some of the burden off the decision, where you're just sort of like, is it making it better or not? And if it's making it better in some way, then do it. Because we need lots of things that are making it better. And there's not going to be one perfect solution that's going to be the answer. There's going to be lots and lots of incremental decisions that are all moving in the right direction. And this is one of them. But even if driving an electric vehicle is solidly and definitely better for the climate, is it better for you?


Ayana: Yeah, let's get down to the selfish brass tacks here, huh? Is driving an EV one of those things that makes you feel all virtuous, but it's actually kind of a pain in the ass? Or is it really better all around?


Alex: Coming up, what it is actually like to drive an electric vehicle from two people who know.


Ayana: Us, Alex. We both have electric cars.


Alex: And we're going to tell you all about it.


Ayana: As people who own EVs tend to do. The good, the bad and the shameful after the break.


***


Alex: Welcome back. So we've talked about the environmental impacts of electric vehicles, but the thing that I think a lot of people worry about when it comes to buying an electric car is, like, does it work? You know, is it just like—is it a pain in the ass or not?


Ayana: Right. Is it practical? Is it reliable? Will I get stuck in the middle of nowhere when my battery dies?


Alex: And these are all questions that I wondered about. I thought an electric car was cool, but not something that I'd want to own because it wouldn't be practical. It wouldn't make sense for my lifestyle as a dad, carting around his kids all the time. But then I actually drove one. My in-laws out in California, they had one and they let us borrow it while we were out there visiting. And it basically turned me into a believer. And now that I've owned one for over a year, I can honestly say the experience of driving one is way different than I ever imagined in the beginning, and frankly way better.


Alex: And I know—and Ayana, I'm sure you can attest, lots of people have questions about what it's like to drive an electric vehicle, so we figured we can probably answer some of those questions.


Ayana: Yeah. We'll spill our guts to you.


Alex: And also Rachel, you're gonna help us with some of the reporting that you've done on electric vehicles.


Rachel: Yeah, I’ll keep you guys honest.


Ayana: So not just gut-spilling, also facts.


Rachel: Yes.


Alex: Yes. Exactly.


Ayana: [laughs] Yes, please keep us honest!


Alex: Yeah.


Rachel: Yeah. Is this the point where we out you both as Tesla owners? Have we told the listeners that yet?


Ayana: Apparently it is—that is, the moment is now.


Alex: It’s true, we each own a Tesla. And it is really embarrassing to admit, especially I think in my case, because I have a sort of fancy one.


Ayana: A definitely fancy one.


Alex: A definitely fancy one. Podcasting turned out to be an unexpectedly lucrative career for me late in life, after a career in public radio. And so I was actually able to afford a nice car. But there's this trade-off with the car that I have, which is that I wanted the kind of Tesla that can sit at least six people in order to cart kids and family around, but the only kind of Tesla that was big enough for that, had these falcon doors. You know the falcon doors that I'm talking about? Like the ones ...


Ayana: [laughs] Oh, I sure do.


Alex: It’s like the DeLorean from Back to the Future?


Ayana: So really subtle, super understated. No one would be like, "What is that over there?"


Alex: There's nothing douchier than pulling up with your kids at school, just pile out kids! It’s the worst. I hate it.


Ayana: And Alex, I thought all electric vehicles were like yours: pretty expensive, out of my price range, for sure. But when this year I needed a car for the first time in a decade and I started looking into it, I realized they're actually pretty price competitive. And I was like, oh, all right. I'm in.


Rachel: Yeah. You know, and this was one of the things that really surprised me when I was reporting for this episode, because I definitely hadn’t quite caught up on this, which is that many electric cars are now in the same price range as equivalent gas-powered cars, especially when you take into account the full cost of owning the car. So take even Teslas, which are obviously on the high end, you know, the average cost of a new car in the U.S. right now is almost $38,000. And a new Tesla Model 3 might cost about $38,000. Now obviously, that is a lot of money, but it really surprised me that it was in that range.


Ayana: Oh, for sure. I thought a Tesla was like $200,000.


Alex: Yeah. That's right.


Rachel: I thought you were basically buying a spaceship, is actually where I was coming from. You know, and we should note that when we talk about prices, we’re including federal subsidies in the US, and those can knock thousands of dollars off the price of electric vehicles. So they make a big difference. But also, prices are coming down because battery technology is improving and getting cheaper. And as that has happened, there’s been this explosion of new electric cars on the market.


Ayana: Right. I was looking at the list and it's like, every car company basically has a few electric models now, from Nissan and Honda and Toyota and Audi and Ford is making an F150 pick-up truck that's electric, which I'm—I think is pretty cool.


Alex: I've seen an advertisement for, like, an electric Mustang on television.


Ayana: An electric Hummer is a thing that's being made. There's like Volvo and Porsche. Everyone's doing it.


Rachel: Yeah, and the prices have been coming down across the board. You know, Consumer Reports just came out with a study this fall, actually, looking at this wide range of cars and SUVs in the US. And they found that when you consider the total ownership costs of a car, so over the full life of the car, owning an electric vehicle can often be cheaper than owning an equivalent gas-powered car.


Rachel: Now the up-front purchase price for electric vehicles are usually more than equivalent gas-powered cars. So, for instance, a new Honda Civic hatchback might cost about $20,000, and an equivalent electric vehicle like a Nissan Leaf would be about $25,000. And that's taking into account federal subsidies. But then if you also look at maintenance and fueling costs, those are usually lower over the life of an electric vehicle, because they generally require less maintenance and fewer repairs, and it’s cheaper to charge them at home than it is to buy gas. So how exactly they stack up still depends on where you live and how much electricity costs, and whether your state or city has additional subsidies for buying electric vehicles, but overall, owning an electric vehicle can be cheaper than owning a conventional internal-combustion engine car. And that is definitely a milestone.


Alex: Right. And we should say, this is not to imply that these cars are universally affordable or cheap. For lots of people, a new car of any kind is simply out of their price range.


Ayana: Yeah. But if you're gonna buy a new car, they're comparable.


Alex: Yeah. And that's the point, right? Like, a new EV is competitive with the price of a new gas car, which is sort of bonkers. And I think I didn't really realize that. And the other things that people worry about with electric vehicles, like the range, like how far can you drive one of these things before you need to recharge it? That’s gotten so much better, too.


Ayana: The thing for me is, how many miles can you go on a single charge? Mostly because I'm sort of irresponsible, right?


Alex: [laughs]


Ayana: And because I live in New York City where you don't need a car, when I do drive, it's a long drive. So before the pandemic, I didn't have a car because I don't need one and, you know, I'm an environmentalist.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: But now, for visiting my mom who lives over an hour from the nearest public transit and to avoid, you know, bringing COVID with me, I started to look into buying a car. And I found out that some electric vehicles can go over 300 miles on a single charge. And that was a total game changer for me.


Rachel: Well, I was just gonna say, because you mentioned, like, range and charging, and I think for a lot of people who are thinking about electric cars, like, this is a big thing for them, is like how do I charge it? And then am I gonna get stuck in the middle of nowhere without a charge? Like, how do you guys charge your cars?


Ayana: When I'm upstate in New York with my mom at the farm, I just literally plug it into a regular outlet in the garage.


Rachel: Wait. And can I ask is it—do you just like—it's just a normal outlet? You don't need, like, some special charger?


Ayana: Like a completely regular outlet, like, where—the same place you plug in your laptop and your cell phone to recharge them, you can plug in your car.


Alex: [laughs] It really feels really weird. It's really cool, though. It just feels like you're getting away with something.


Ayana: It does.


Alex: And, you know, if your car's just plugged into the wall in the garage like a lamp, it takes, I don't know, 24 to 36 hours to fully charge. But if you're just driving around town, you're not actually depleting the whole battery, you're driving maybe 20 or 30 miles. And so plugging it in overnight is more than enough to charge it back up to where it was. And then if you do go on a longer trip, they have these high-speed charging stations where you can fully charge your battery in, like, I don't know, 20 to 40 minutes, which is like, you know, longer than filling a tank of gas, but not that long. You know, it's just like, get a snack, go to the bathroom. You're done.


Ayana: Listen to a podcast.


Alex: Listen to a podcast.


Ayana: Do some jumping jacks. Stretch your legs.


Alex: Exactly.


Ayana: And this is a big difference from even a few years ago, because there is this network of thousands of charging stations now all across the country. So, for example, between New York City and upstate New York where my mom lives, there are a dozen or more different charging stations along the way. So I can just pull over when I need to charge and take a break, stretch my legs, and then I'm off again.


Rachel: Yeah, and looking into this, it’s clear that electric vehicles still make the most sense if you’re able to charge it at home. You know, it’s cheaper, you don’t have to wait around while the car charges. And while there is definitely more charging infrastructure in the US than there used to be, most of the country still doesn’t have enough to keep up with the projected increase in electric vehicles. Europe is actually doing a little bit better on this count, but it also still needs to build a lot more charging infrastructure as more electric vehicles hit the road. So depending on where you live, the lack of charging infrastructure can be a real downside to electric vehicles.


Alex: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.


Ayana: Yeah, you should definitely look at the map near where you live before you buy one to see if there are charging stations that will get you where you need to go.


Alex: There's one other point. It's probably important to make, you know, because of that efficiency thing we talked about?


Ayana: The thing where all the power goes into forward motion instead of tiny explosions of fossil fuels?


Alex: Yeah. And because of that, electric cars tend to accelerate faster, which makes them really fun to drive, right? Like, I mean, you know, Tesla sort of brags about this. They talk about how their cars go from 0 to 60 in under three seconds or whatever. But even something like a Nissan Leaf? That accelerates faster than what you think of are these, like, super fast, traditional cars. Like a traditional V8 muscle car, like a '68 Mustang? A Leaf goes from 0 to 60 faster than that. So it's just—its really good.


Ayana: [laughs] It's so good, in fact, that you will get a speeding ticket the first time you drive your car, because it is like a rocket ship.


Alex: [laughs]


Ayana: I need to go pay that speeding ticket, actually. It's, like, in the bottom of my purse, somewhere. Oops.


Alex: Because I think a lot of people have the feeling that you and Ayana and I had, which is just sort of like, yay, but they're not there yet. Or they're—it's going to be slightly a hassle, or something’s—it's not—I'll be having to sacrifice by buying this car. And in fact, the opposite is true. I'm now living this reality. I'm living, in many ways, the future that we need. And I can tell people, like, this future is better. It's not just like, it's not gonna make do, it's better.


Ayana: Alex, I feel like what you're saying is we should both be less shy about admitting that we have electric cars. It’s more like: come on in the water’s fine! I think of it as, like, an exciting investment in the future, right? Because, like, obviously we're all gonna get off of fossil fuels at some point. Like, someone has to take the leap. And I was like, I’m in! This is a thing I can do to be part of this cool transformation.


Alex: Well, that's what I told myself, you know? Because I was very ashamed of it. And my instinct was ...


Ayana: I know. It's like the way that I made fun of you until I got my own.


Alex: And like, the doors! The deal I made with myself was like, I'm gonna stand proudly in front of those stupid-ass Falcon doors.


Ayana: [laughs]


Alex: And anybody who comes and talks to me, I'm just gonna talk about, like, how it's an electric car and it's much better. And that's what I'm gonna do with my shame is try to turn it into action.


Ayana: And that's pretty much what we just did here on this podcast episode. So big thanks to Rachel for bringing us all this great information on electric vehicles.


Rachel: Yeah, of course.


Alex: And thanks to Harry and Ami for sending in your question. Keep them coming. We love, love, love getting your questions.


Ayana: Yes, we love your questions. We also love your sweet love notes and other feedback. And you may recall that at the end of the last few episodes, we've asked you to send us voice memos if you took up any of our recommended actions, to let us know how it went. And a lot of you actually did. And they were so great that today for the first, but definitely not the last time, we're gonna share some of those messages.


Alex: And all these messages, they came in response to the episode about refrigerants we did a couple of weeks ago, it was called Cold Hard Cash for your Greenhouse Gas. And one of the resources that we recommended at the end of that episode was a website called Climate-Friendly Supermarkets. All right, so let’s listen to our first message.


Olivia: Hi, this is Olivia in New York City. And I wanted to let you all know I went onto climatefriendlysupermarkets.org and put in my zip code, and I was shocked to see that there are no climate-friendly supermarkets in my neighborhood of the Lower East Side.


Alex: Gah!


Olivia: But what they have on there that is really cool and I wanted to share, is a petition where you can say you're a resident and you support businesses that use climate-friendly coolants ...


Ayana: Oh, cool!


Olivia: ... coming to your area. And it was really easy to sign and sign up. And it took, like, two minutes, and I did it while I was cooking. And now I feel great.


Alex: [laughs]


Ayana: Activism, it’s addictive. Careful, Olivia.


Olivia: So I just wanted to let you guys know I did it and I enjoyed doing it. And if anyone else is questioning whether it's worth the time, it was worth it.


Alex: Awesome!


Olivia: So thank you guys so much. I really love the podcast. Can't wait for the next episode.


Alex: Aw!


Ayana: Aw!


Alex: That makes me so happy!


Ayana: Thanks for calling, Olivia!


Alex: That's great. That’s so easy.


Ayana: I’m into this.


Alex: Yeah. Check out the website. Sign the petition.


Ayana: We’re not just, like, screaming into the void.


Alex: Yeah. I know.


Ayana: People are listening and then, like, clicking and doing things.


Alex: Exactly. We're doing things together, people. We're not alone. Here, let’s listen to another one.


Patrick: Hi, this is Patrick.


Alex: Hi, Patrick.


Patrick: I am a huge nerd, and a bit of an activist when it comes to climate change and refrigerants. And I'm also a licensed professional engineer in the field of heating, ventilation and air conditioning.


Ayana: Oh, this is his jam!


Patrick: During the past year, I gave a presentation on climate-friendly refrigerants to a local meetup group.


Ayana: This is awesome.


Patrick: And provided public comment supporting a regulation to ban HFC-134a.


Alex: Whoa!


Patrick: And wrote to my representatives in support of actions aligned with the Kigali Amendment. When you mentioned that there was such an organization as the North American Sustainable Refrigerant Council, I nearly dropped my phone with excitement ...


Alex: [laughs]


Ayana: [laughs]


Patrick: ... paused the podcast and signed up for their email list within about 20 seconds. I also just signed both petitions supporting HFC-free supermarkets, and you'd better believe that I am voting for the climate. Thanks.


Ayana: Yay, Patrick!


Alex: Thank you, Patrick!


Ayana: This makes me so happy. I mean, how often do people call you and be like, Kigali Amendment, HFC 134-a? I’m in. But there was this one thing I didn’t know.


Alex: I love that there is a listener for whom mentioning NASRC was their record scratch moment.


Ayana: A self-described refrigerant nerd, which I did not know was a subcategory of nerd, but I am obviously so here for that.


Alex: Oh, Patrick. Thank you so much. That was amazing. Let's listen to one more, shall we?


Molly: Hi, Ayana and Alex.


Alex: Hi!


Molly: I just read your newsletter today. I got excited that I saw that there was a new episode out of How to Save a Planet, my new favorite podcast.


Alex: Aww!


Ayana: This is like the best pep talk. I love this.


Molly: And I checked out the climate-friendly supermarkets link and saw that Trader Joe's, my otherwise favorite supermarket in the US ranked bottom of the list.


Alex: Traitor Joe’s, am I right?


Ayana: Alex.


Molly: Which actually led me to post on Facebook for the first time in over two and a half years.


Alex: Whoa!


Molly: Because it finally put me over the edge and gave me some concrete evidence to, you know, start being more vocal on my social media.


Ayana: Oh, cool!


Molly: I have been very averse to using social media. But if I want to use my voice where my network is going to hear it, then social media is where I'm going to have to put it.


Alex: Hmm.


Molly: So I posted. And it feels a little scary, but good. It feels like I did something worthwhile. And so thank you for giving me some really tangible tools to do that. I appreciate it.


Alex: Awesome.


Ayana: I can’t believe that, like, refrigerant management was the thing that, like, got her back on social media.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: To be like, "Everybody, I have something important to share!"


Alex: But I think that's the thing, though, is that I think one of the nice things about, like, for me about doing this show, is just sort of realizing, like, this big, huge, overwhelming seeming problem of climate change actually has, like, parts. And each individual part has, like, individual solutions, and they're not overwhelming. And they're somewhat simple. It's like literally taking a different gas and putting it in our refrigerators, you know?


Ayana: The challenge is, as she described, it can be really hard to get to the bottom of all of these different topics and solutions on your own. And so it makes me feel really good that we sort of gave her the solid information that she needed to be like, "Oh, I get it. I’m in. Like, team, we gotta do something about this."


Alex: I think that is a really meaningful thing to do, especially if you haven't done it before, because as we know ...


Ayana: Yeah. Share some new information with people who probably trust you, because you're not just spouting off about a bunch of nonsense on there all the time.


Alex: Exactly. But also, as you know, one of the things that I've said this before, and I think it's really important to keep repeating to people, is that one of the most important things that you can do is to not be silent about caring about this issue and expressing your feelings on it.


Ayana: Totally. And I think that's even more true when we're talking about a specific solution, right? Like, not climate change overall, we should do something about it. But like, there's more of a, "Did you know" vibe to it, right? Like, "Did you know this thing about refrigerants? We should do something about that," right? And here's something we can do. As opposed to like, "Climate change is gonna kill us all!" Which is, like, okay. But, you know, what do I do with that?


Alex: Yeah, exactly.


Ayana: So it seems sort of counter-intuitive but, like, the more we focus on the smaller aspects of it, right? The step-by-step, okay, problem, solution, problem, solution. What's next? I think those kinds of things are also more exciting to spread the word about. Almost like some cocktail party facts.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: Did you know that there were all sorts of different kinds of refrigerants and some of them have, like, a zero global warming index and some of them are, like, times thousands? Shouldn’t we pick—we should pick the better ones, right? Do you want to call Trader Joe's with me? [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] That's a crazy-sounding cocktail party.


Ayana: I mean, now you know what my social life is like. So for this week if you want to take action, as always we have a couple of recommendations for things that you can do.


Alex: This is maybe one of the most fun calls to action we've ever recommended. If you are thinking about buying a new car, test drive an electric vehicle. Just do it, check it out. Join us in the future. And if you're interested in how much that would reduce your greenhouse gas footprint, if you swapped from a conventional gas car to an electric vehicle where you live and where you'd be charging, there are actually a couple of calculators online that will help that help you figure that out.


Alex: The Union of Concerned Scientists has one that compares vehicles in the United States. And also the advocacy group, Transport and Environment has one for the EU. And we'll link to both of those in our show notes and in our newsletter.


Alex: And if you do end up taking any of our recommendations from this week's episode or any of the previous episodes ...


Ayana: Let us know how it goes.


Alex: Yeah. Let us know how it goes. You can do that by sending an email to howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. Also, do not forget: subscribe to the newsletter.


Ayana: Oh, it's so good.


Alex: The link is in the show notes. We have all the recommendations, plus a couple of pictures behind the scenes, other resources that we link to.


Ayana: Occasional sassy TikToks embedded in there.


Alex: It’s a barrel of fun, that newsletter, so subscribe. And that's definitely by far the best way to stay in touch and stay aware of all the resources that we have for actions to take.


Ayana: Barrel of monkeys in your inbox every week.


Alex: Barrel of monkeys. I just get older every day.


Ayana: Alex, we all get older every day. Don't worry about it. Lean into—lean into your age and your Tesla, and let's do this. Roll the credits.


Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet, with the number 2, on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com—with or without the number 2. Your choice.


Ayana: How to Save a Planet is hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg.


Alex: Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


Ayana: Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson.


Alex: Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib.


Ayana: Thanks to Lucien Matthieu, and special thanks to Olivia, Patrick, Molly and everyone else who wrote in and sent us voice memos. And especially to Ami Bogin and Harry Bishop, who inspired this entire episode.


Alex: We’ll see you next week.



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