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No, Tesla is not a zero-emission vehicle

(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.  

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.


  1. Where in this News Story are the numbers for carbon and pollution from gasoline production. Far worse than battery construction and added to every time you fill up. How much electricity does it take to make a gallon of gasoline. All lost to the writer. The study sited was debunked years ago.

  2. Dear author of this article,

    Are you not. Aware that when a car company refers to a car as zero CO2 emissions they are talking about what comes out of the tail pipe?

    Are you not aware that Tesla unlike any other car manufacturers, pushes it’s solar panels and Tesla Powerwall. In doing so, minimising the demand of fossil fuels used by power stations?

    Are you not aware that Tesla have also developed a solar roof? In doing so, making solar a more aesthetically pleasing option for your house.

    Are you also not aware, that other car manufacturers use aluminium?

    Are you also not aware that Tesla is aware of any environmental impact in the production of batteries. Elon Musk has previously stated, they are using lithium-ion for now, but will look at changing should a better option become available.

    And finally, are you not aware you article is completely biased?

  3. Irrelevant information. The technology for a zero-emission manufacturing facility does not exist yet.

    This has no impact on the fact that the vehicle will produce zero carbon emissions during its consumable life cycle.

    What you have done is shine light into the next challenge of renewable energy, making Manufacturing zero emissions as well 🙂

  4. Totall BS, zero emissions relates to usage od the vehicle not It’s manufacturing process. This article is bias towards oil companies to which genius companies like Tesla will eventually be naill to the coffin. Fake News!!

  5. First lets talk about the impact of co2 . Over recorded and unrecorded pre-history our current 400 ppm is at the low end of the scale for life to prosper . With a measurable increase of co2 over the last 17 years there has been no equivalent increase in temperature . At this time greenhouse growers are adding co2 to their building to improve growth. The article mentioned cobalt production as a source of co2 , but made no mention of lithium in China where they pay No attention to environmental regs and co2 is the least of the pollution they produce . By way the upper level for co2 on a us navy submarine is 8000ppm .
    The co2 produced during a vehicles lifetime has to include the power plant that produces the electricity and "green " power generation is not a viable option at this time or in the foreseeable future . As an additional factors , the anticuated power grid is already being strained to the point of collapse . For tesla’s charging station for a class 8 truck a fast charger , 3 hours ,will use the power equivalent of 400 homes . And doesn’t exist yet . THAT’S FOR 1 CLASS 8. Niche vehicle maybe , major part of the market No .
    Personally I thought the article was biased towards the use of BEV.

  6. The Swedish study is total bollocks! "It shows that battery manufacturing gives rise to 150-200 kilograms of CO2", no, it claims nothing more – Sweden makes Volvos!
    Germany makes Vw, Audi, Mercedes, BMW etc. it´s their largest export… And their motororganisation ADAC claims that you have to drive 500.000 km before a Tesla is greener (comparing a Mercedes Coupe with a Tesla SUV), also bollocks!
    I´ve gotten so tired of the false data which is used uncritically in articles by journalist, not making the effort or taking pride of their job (Where´s the Tesla Gigafactory, Nevada in this article?), and when i saw the official WLTP data from Mercedes i decided to make a proper analyse on these reports, 44.000km is what you have to drive in a Tesla! Have a look for yourself: