To many, the Tesla brand has become synonymous with sustainability, an unprecedented feat considering the automobile industry has often been deemed the antithesis of a ‘green’ enterprise. Even when disregarding Tesla’s SolarCity subsidiary and other sustainable ventures, Tesla has pioneered the production of innovative electric vehicles and has prevented over 3,552,300 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. And yet, despite Tesla’s accomplishment of procuring and publicizing an unchallenged brand of sustainability, there are doubts as to whether Tesla’s electric automobiles are as environmentally-friendly as is widely believed.
In 2016, Devonshire Research Group, an investment firm that evaluates tech companies, determined that Tesla is not as sustainable as the company claims to be. According to Devonshire’s study, environmental risks are prevalent in all stages of the vehicle’s development and lifecycle. This study asserts that the production of batteries requires the mining and consumption of copious amounts of toxic chemicals, which could have detrimental effects on both human health and soil composition.
Additionally, according to Devonshire Research Group, the production of Tesla’s electric vehicles have a larger carbon footprint than traditional vehicles–citing the Carnegie Institution for Science, the study finds that all electric vehicles cause 86 percent more deaths from air pollution than cars powered by gasoline. Furthermore, the disposal of these batteries en masse results in a substantial toxic burden. While batteries can be and are recycled, the improper disposal of batteries allows for the castings to disintegrate and leach toxic metals into the surrounding environment, which eventually accumulate in humans.
Furthermore, the production and consumption of these electric vehicles results in e-waste–and, in the US, only around 30% of this toxic electronic-waste is recycled. The Devonshire Research Group concludes that, just as switching from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes is detrimental to once’s health, switching from gas automobiles to electric vehicles still has a negative environmental impact.
Additionally, there is a misconception as to the true definition of the word ‘sustainable.’ To be categorized as a sustainable company, it is ideal for said company to profit in the long-term, protect the environment, and contribute to social equity. It has been established that Tesla protects the environment in some respects and degrades it in others. Still in its fledgling stages, it is too soon for Tesla’s long-term profitability and contributions to social equity to be determined, but there have been reports of staff injuries swept under the rug and a lack of sincerity from Tesla CEO Elon Musk. As of now, Tesla is not the sustainable force it is perceived to be–but there is room for growth from both Tesla and the electric vehicle industry as a whole.
While the ecological impacts of Tesla’s electric vehicles are questionable, the innovation and development of electric vehicles will not, and should not, cease. Coupled with urban planning that allows for walkable cities and improved public transportation, Tesla’s electric cars have earned a place in our present and deserved a place in our future–to an extent.
By Blair Hassett, Policy Intern