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Are Teslas & Electric Cars Really Better for the Environment? An Examination.
The answer probably won't surprise you.
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Electric vehicles are so hot right now. The International Energy Agency found over 10 million electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in 2022, with a projected 14 million to be sold in 2023. There are many factors driving the adoption of EVs, chief amongst them the belief that they are “green” and therefore key to stopping climate change. But upon closer inspection, the environmentalist credentials of EVs aren’t what they’re made out to be.
To properly understand the environmental impact EVs have compared to traditional, internal-combustion engine vehicles (ICEs), I’m going to use the vehicle emissions and company practices of Tesla, as it’s the world’s leading seller of EVs. Additionally, unlike established car companies moving into the EV space, Tesla is solely dedicated to producing electric vehicles. Using Tesla as a benchmark provides a glimpse into the world of “green Capitalism”, a series of new-age companies claiming to solve the problems caused by “non-green Capitalism.”
Right off the bat, Tesla as a company does not appear to be the pro-environment actor it claims to be. In 2018 Tesla was fined for pollutions from its production plant in Fremont, CA. The penalty was a meager $139,500, plus having to cover the installation of solar panels at the local Boys & Girls Club. Undeterred, Tesla continued to over-emit from its Fremont plant and was fined by the EPA in 2022. Despite being a repeat offender, Tesla paid only $275,000.
“People living in communities that are near sources of hazardous air pollutants may face significant risks to their health and environment. The list of hazardous air pollutants, or “air toxics”, includes over 180 chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects. Tesla’s facility applied coating materials containing formaldehyde, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, and xylene.” - The EPA’s statement on the 2022 Tesla fine.
And in March of this year, a German environmentalist group filed charges against Tesla’s Berlin “gigaplant” on account of its pollution of a nearby river.
Tesla is certainly not the only car manufacturer to emit pollutes, poison rivers, and sicken the communities they occupy. (Ford had to settle with the EPA just last year.) But Tesla is the only car company claiming that its products will save the planet, making these offenses much more illuminating about the company’s sincerity to environmentalist causes.
Head to Head: Tesla vs. Gas-Powered Vehicles
Ethical production issues aside, it’s still worth determining if an individual Tesla emits less CO2 than the standard ICE vehicle. After all, if Teslas significantly reduce emissions, then we can focus on regulating their factories while encouraging EV usage wherever possible.
To get an accurate picture of how Tesla emissions compare to standard ICE vehicles, I’m pulling from this extensive reporting from Tim Stevens at CNET, who was able to expense a BMW for his investigation. (Currently, JoeWrote is unable to afford luxury cars for its employee. You can change that by becoming a premium subscriber. 😉) Stevens provides a great breakdown of the emissions but falls short in factoring in how Teslas are actually driven, which I cover later on here.
The most popular Tesla, the Model 3, generates approximately 210 grams of CO2 per mile driven, while a comparable ICE car generates about 269 grams of CO2 per mile driven. But as it takes about one gallon of gas to transport four gallons of gas to the pump for an ICE owner to fill up, we really need to multiply the ICE car’s emissions by 25%, resulting in an average ICE vehicle emission of about 336 grams of CO2 per mile. That means the Tesla produces about two-thirds the emissions of a normal car. Were that the end of the story, we could rejoice! EVs are better for the environment and should be welcomed with open arms.
But to be fully thorough, we need to include the emissions from the creation of Tesla’s lithium batteries. Unfortunately, Tesla does not release those figures. Obviously, this doesn’t bode well for the “greenness” of the company, as quieting its most important emission metrics means they’re very likely hiding something.
While we can’t know for certain, the Argonne National Lab estimates approximately 5,500,000 grams of CO2 is created in the production of one Tesla Model 3 battery. That means that the Tesla Model 3 owner would have to drive about 47,413 miles (or about three years) to “break-even” on carbon emissions compared to a standard car.
This is where I deviate from Stevens’s analysis, as his “three-year break-even hypothesis” assumes Teslas are used in place of standard cars. But by looking at the demographic and usage data of Tesla owners, we see that EVs are not replacing gas cars, but rather being added on top of the existing combustion fleet.
According to the Energy Institute at HASS, 90% of U.S. households with an electric vehicle also have some other form of car, and 66% of U.S. households with an electric vehicle drive a non-electric vehicle more than their EV. So, while EVs still only need to reach 47K miles to “break-even” against their non-electric counterparts, it is going to take MUCH longer than three years to do that. In fact, they might never reach it.
Looking at the graph below, we can see that very rarely are EVs the only car EV owners use, making Stevens’s “three-year break-even” sound in theory but not reality.
As the data shows, electric vehicles are commonly a household’s second, third, or fourth car. This fits with the common use case of Tesla owners, who report using ICE vehicles for longer trips while reserving their Teslas for around-town spins. This use-case hypothesis is supported by the fact that 36% of EV owners have more vehicles than drivers. And as 60% of households with an EV also have a non-electric SUV, truck, or minivan, which produces more emissions than the standard sedan used in the above car-to-car comparison, it appears that Teslas aren’t phasing out the American gas-powered car fleet, but rather are the modern replacement for the sleek-and-shiny sports car purchased as a toy.
As it stands, it is difficult to make the argument that electric vehicles (specifically the Tesla Model 3) are a net positive for the environment. While it *might* emit less than the median gas-powered sedan, the fact that Tesla hides the emissions caused by battery production leads me to believe they are higher than we expect, and therefore the company must keep them quiet to preserve its “green” image. Additionally, battery-powered cars appear to neither be cheap enough nor do they have the supported infrastructure to make them a viable alternative for the gas-powered fleet of the American public. Despite the branding, electric vehicles are here to save the car industry, not the planet.
Yet again we see that we cannot rely on Capitalism to repair the damages caused by its core tenet, the need for profit. If we want to combat the inevitable consequences of climate change, we’re going to have to rethink how we approach transportation. Specifically, we’re going to need to move away from car-based infrastructure towards public transportation, the type Elon Musk has openly admitted to trying to stop.
Until then, electric vehicles will just be a hypothetical improvement over the status quo.
What did you think about the potential of Teslas and other electric vehicles? Share your thoughts in the comments. And as always, make sure to subscribe to support JoeWrote and receive these articles right in your inbox.