No, Tesla is not a zero-emission vehicle

(Source: Pexels)

(Source: Pexels)


We all know how the brand of Tesla is looked at - as being a company that not only cares about the environment, but also manufactures swanky futuristic cars that can give conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars a run for their money. But the question remains on whether Tesla is really what it projects itself to be - a zero-emission vehicle.

Sure, if the statement of zero-emission cars is taken at face value it looks to be true as it does not have an ICE nor does it have an exhaust pipe and runs on a rechargeable battery. But there are different aspects that revolve around the manufacturing of a Tesla and the energy it uses up while on the road, which need to be considered before we attest to its environmental impact superiority.

First up, we need to dig deeper into Tesla’s battery production facilities and the processes involved in assembling them. IVL, the Swedish Environment Institute, has come up with a report which outlines the potential carbon impact of battery production. It shows that battery manufacturing gives rise to 150-200 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour of produced battery. Tesla Model S for example, has a 100 kWh battery which means that when someone buys the car, they already are taking home a battery that has created an average of 17.5 tonnes of CO2 in its production process.

But then, the equivalent CO2 produced in the U.S. could be much higher than what is shown in the data gathered by the IVL. The calculations in the report are based out of the data gathered from Swedish battery production facilities, which accounts for electricity where half of it is produced by solar, wind, and hydropower - as Sweden is one of the leading proponents for renewable energy sources in the world. The U.S. banks a lot more on non-renewable energy sources with 78% of its total energy production coming from coal, oil, and gas. This could skyrocket carbon impact of a Tesla car in the U.S. before it even gets on the road.

But before we look into the production of rechargeable batteries, it is worth noticing the environmental impact permeating in from the process of mining rare metals used in batteries. Cobalt, which is one of the primary ingredients of the lithium-ion batteries that Tesla uses, is a metal that is produced as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, involving a lot of environmental degradation at its wake. Also, there is the modern slavery and child labor factor in the unearthing of cobalt, which FreightWaves had covered extensively earlier this year. Also, copper and aluminum is an integral part of an electric vehicle and smelting of aluminum for instance, is deteriorating air quality in China.

This does not mean that electric vehicles should be shunned altogether. In the longer run, EVs can only be beneficial to an ever-changing transportation system, but what is concerning is the size of the batteries that are being produced - with bigger batteries come a tremendous amount of carbon footprint. Tesla is known for pushing boundaries, and in its quest for creating a supercar, it keeps stretching battery capacity which ends up nullifying the benefit of running an EV.

Nonetheless, electric vehicles can lay claim to the fact that if adopted en mass across cities, it can reduce the concentration of CO2 inside the city, thereby improving local air quality. The battery production facilities are usually well outside the urban parameters and thus might not directly affect the respiratory health of a large concentration of people. Bottomline is that by developing EVs, keeping in mind the environmental concerns of its production and not just its operational efficiency, would be a win-win situation for everyone.   

Across the world, government bodies are pushing for regulations that are incentivizing the introduction of EVs and reducing the production of ICE vehicles. This is frequently done without any concrete norms in place for identifying the efficiency of production of EVs or their lifetime carbon footprints compared to that of an ICE.

For example, the EU has proposed the introduction of rules that can levy penalties for carmakers who fail to reduce tailpipe emissions by 30% by 2030, which clearly can be seen as a predatory move against ICE manufacturers. Interestingly, the rules do not seem to outline the merits of replacing ICEs with EVs. Harald Hendrikse, auto analyst at Morgan Stanley, succinctly puts forth the argument that politicians are setting policy in a vacuum, which in no way helps approach a situation as delicate as carbon emission control. A general lack of regulations on battery production is indirectly enabling companies like Tesla to produce bigger batteries, which makes the idea of a “green” vehicle, a gross misconception.

Then again, the prospects of EVs are brighter than ever. With developed countries aligning their energy production strategy towards renewable resources like solar and wind power, the manufacturing and running of EVs could progressively be greener. But until then, calling Tesla or any EV as a zero-emission vehicle would be misleading and cannot be further away from the truth.  

Stay up-to-date with the latest commentary and insights on FreightTech and the impact to the markets by subscribing.