Are Elon Musk’s cars really going to save the planet?

Bjorn Lomborg says no:

As Elon Musk presented the new Tesla 3, a fawning press announced that the “world-changing car” could “dominate” the market. Within days, 276,000 people had put down $1,000 to pre-order the car.

But the Model 3 doesn’t exist yet. There is no final production version, much less any production. Musk is “fairly confident” that deliveries could start by the end of 2017. But running on schedule isn’t Tesla’s strong suit. Meanwhile, Tesla’s current best-seller has been plagued by quality problems.

All of this might just be another iPhone vs Galaxy conversation – except that these vehicles are hailed as green saviours and so are subsidised to the tune of billions of pounds.

Before unveiling the car, Musk sanctimoniously declared that Tesla exists to give the planet a sustainable future. He pointed to rising CO₂ levels. He lamented that 53,000 people die from air pollution from transportation. Tesla, the story goes, is a lifesaver. Like other electric cars, it has “zero emissions” of air pollution and CO₂.

But this is only true of the car itself; the electricity powering it is often produced with coal, which means that the clean car is responsible for heavy air pollution. As green venture capitalist Vinod Khosla likes to point out, “electric cars are coal-powered cars”.

If the USA had 10 per cent more petrol cars by 2020, air pollution would claim 870 more lives. A similar increase in electric ones would cause 1,617 more deaths a year, mostly because of the coal burned.


If we were to scale this to the UK, electric cars would cause the same or more air pollution-related deaths than petrol-powered cars. In China, because their coal power plants are so dirty, electric cars make local air much worse: in Shanghai, pollution from more electric-powered cars would be nearly three-times as deadly as more petrol-powered ones.

Uh oh. Still at least our emissions will be less right? Wrong.

[W]hile electric cars typically emit less CO₂, the savings are smaller than most imagine. Over a 150,000 km lifetime, the top-line Tesla S will emit about 13 tonnes of CO₂. But the production of its batteries alone will emit 14 tonnes, along with seven more from the rest of its production and eventual decommissioning.

Compare this with the diesel-powered, but similarly performing, Audi A7 Sportback, which uses about seven litres per 100km, so about 10,500 litres over its lifetime. This makes 26 tonnes of CO₂. The Audi will also emit slightly more than 7 tons in production and end-of-life. In total, the Tesla will emit 34 tonnes and the Audi 35. So over a decade, the Tesla will save the world 1.2 tonnes of CO₂.

Reducing 1.2 tonnes of CO₂ on the EU emissions trading system costs £5; but instead, the UK Government subsidises each car with £4,500. All of the world’s electric cars sold so far have soaked up £9 billion in subsidies, yet will only save 3.3 million tonnes of CO₂. This will reduce world temperatures by 0.00001°C in 2100 – the equivalent of postponing global warming by about 30 minutes at the end of the century.  Electric cars will be a good idea, once they can compete – which will probably be by 2032. But it is daft to waste billions of pounds of public money on rich people’s playthings that kill more people through air pollution while barely affecting carbon emissions. The Tesla 3 is indeed a “zero emissions” marvel – but that is only because it does not yet exist.

Subsidies mean the business is unsustainable. The whole thing is a rort.

All it achieves is increased pollution and a cloud of smug following the drivers around.


– Telegraph


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  • geoff2112

    production will be at least 5 years away…..

  • meltingpot

    And that is not mentioning the multitude of toxic chemicals involved in the battery production and disposal. Personally I think toxicity risk to our clean water is a far bigger risk to the world but it is not taxed via the ETS and carbon economy so it is not talked about. Also ask Venezuela how the renewable energy thing is going for them.

  • I still reckon that hydrogen powered cars will be the way to go.
    Especially as Toyota has recently open sourced all their hydrogen patents in the interest of speeding both development and adoption.

    • David Moore

      The fact that Toyota has open sourced the IP kind of tells you they don’t see a lot of value stored in the IP!

    • SaggyNaggy

      You have to get the hydrogen from somewhere. Just straight pulling it out of the ground is expensive relative to just standard natural gas. It’s easy to make, but guess what?! That requires… electricity. Ultimately, unless it’s nuclear or hydro, most of that is going to come from burning fossil fuels.

      To say nothing of the fact that it is ridiculously unstable and hard to store. Just ask the Captain of the Hindenburg.

      You may as well cut out the middleman and just use petrol.

      • Second time around

        Hydrogen (produced from off peak electricity by electrolysis of water) is storable, unlike solar electricity. It does not readily liquefy, but was used in domestic gas supplies (water gas) from Victorian times until CNG became available. A small hydrogen leak is unlikely to accumulate to form an explosive mixtures because it diffuses so rapidly, but air-hydrogen mixtures are explosive over a wider range than for CNG. Two thirds of the Hindenburg passengers survived the fire, rather better odds than would be expected for high octane aviation fuels.

        • Cadae

          Hydrogen’s energy density is abysmal compared to petrol. The very best hydrogen vehicle can travel less than half the distance of an ordinary similarly sized petrol car. Hydrogen has to be manufactured which means energy losses from your energy source. There’s far too much going against hydrogen at present for it to be successful.

  • Canucktoo

    Clever way to make $276M – wonder if he’ll refund everyone if it doesn’t get traction and I’d hate to be the last person on that list as it’ll take decades to get to the 276,000th car!!!

  • Isherman

    Not to mention of course that in Musks case its all been made possible by big fat government subsidies, fat meaning very close to 5 billion dollars in subsidies for his three companies. Somebody has calculated that each Tesla sold has the taxpayer covering about 30K between state and federal subsidies.

  • Gladwin

    Just a few points
    – China & USA may be the the biggest polluters but they are also by far the biggest investors in non or low emission energy projects
    – Shanghai etc will benefit as nobody is daft enough to put coal burning plant in such major cities
    – Diesels are also naughty because they also produce nitrous oxide and other bad pollutants
    – It’s a bit rich of this author using an Audi/VW as his example – a lot of VW group vehicles are diesel with very suss emission outputs
    – Electric vehicles are here to stay. The battery developments going on are enormous.
    Even VW are wetting themselves to get out of diesel and go electric having bought a US electronic car battery company to help achieve this
    – Get used to it. Electric vehicles are here to stay. Musk may or may not achieve his goals – I think he will. But if he fails others will succeed.

    • Andy

      Yo are quite right. I read China will have 50 nuclear reactors in the next few years and plans now to export technology. Does this include the spent rods?

  • T Mardell

    What are the total CO2 figures like for NZ where a good proportion of the electricity is generated from hydro and geothermal sources? Also given that there are technologies developing such as clean thorium reactors, that may alter the picture.

    However, given the CO2 is turning out not to be the bogeyman it once was, what other positives come out of this endeavour? Cleaner environment, less pollution from the other nasties in vehicle emissions. Quieter environments, although that and the latter point can be addressed in other ways.

    If mass produced, are the electric vehicles going to ultimately be cheaper, last longer, less breakdowns? I’d like to see a discussion on this. A simple comparison of internal combustion vs electric motor dynamics indicate that the simpler mechanisms in electric motors could be more beneficial.

  • Cadae

    If New Zealanders were to take up electric cars en masse, the electricity demand would be greater than our hydro stations could handle. Green technologies such as windmills and solar, apart from being extraordinarily expensive sources of power, wouldn’t be able to reliably handle the additional load. The only viable option would be gas or coal powered stations. At that point – wave goodbye to any claims about electric cars lowering CO2 emissions, unless of course, nuclear power stations were to be built.

    • 10cents

      Internationally, solar generated electricity sells on a commercial basis for around 8 to 10 cents US per kWh. No subsidy, no hand outs. Solar isn’t extrodinarily expensive at all.