It’s time for Tesla founder Elon Musk to come clean about the rising carbon footprint of his signature product, as the company’s rapid growth around the world takes it into countries and regions where electric vehicles are powered by the world’s most polluting fuels, commodities columnist David Fickling writes for Bloomberg Opinion.
“At a time when most major companies are working on plans to cut their carbon emissions, one of the darlings of green investing is working to increase its emissions footprint,” Fickling says. “Thanks to its explosive expansion in China and a planned car plant in India, Tesla Inc. is in the process of not just increasing the total sum of its emissions—a pretty inevitable consequence of growth in our current carbonized world—but increasing the amount of pollution each of its vehicles generates, too.”
The analysis is a version of a frequently-asked question about EVs’ carbon footprint—a discussion that points to the emissions they produce once they’ve been manufactured and have gone into everyday use. The calculation depends largely on the electricity supply mix in the jurisdiction where the vehicle is sold, owned, and operated.
As a point of comparison, Fickling notes that transportation emissions from gasoline and diesel make Volkswagen a bigger carbon polluter than colossal fossil Total SE, while Toyota’s footprint is higher than BP’s and truck engine maker Cummins is responsible for more carbon than perennial climate villain ExxonMobil. “Electric vehicles like those sold by Tesla are at a substantial advantage on that front,” he writes. “They’re so much more efficient in converting produced energy into vehicle power that even in coal-heavy grids like China’s, they’re more efficient than the gasoline equivalent.”
But how much more efficient depends on location: Citing data from European NGO Transport & Environment, he notes that a large battery-electric vehicle would account for 88 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre in the average European Union country, 50 grams or less in low-carbon Sweden or France, but 193 grams in coal-heavy Poland.
Those numbers all compare favourably to the 284 grams the petrol-powered equivalent would emit. But Fickling says Poland’s emissions are a good proxy for the jurisdictions where Tesla is looking for the fastest growth—which means the company’s overall carbon footprint is set to rise.
“An essential element of the climate potential of electric vehicles is that they’re able to switch to lower-carbon fuels over the course of their lifetimes, as heavily-emitting power plants are disconnected from the grid and replaced with renewables,” he explains. “That process is likely to be quite rapid in developed countries—but in the two countries where Tesla hopes to catch the next leg of growth, China and India, it’s going to be unusually slow.”
Fickling’s problem with that is not necessarily the emissions, so much as Musk’s inclination to talk about them (or not). While detailed climate impact measurements will be keenly interesting to climate-focused investors, some of whom have helped drive Tesla stock sky-high, Fickling says the company has refused to disclose data on its carbon footprint—not just Scope 3 emissions from operating vehicles, but Scope 1 emissions from its own electricity consumption, or Scope 2 emissions from the power it purchases.
“Nor does it disclose its electricity consumption, and its behaviour indicates that, for all the rhetoric, this isn’t exactly a priority,” he writes. “Four years after production started at its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada, the solar panels that were to cover its roof and help make it independent of Nevada’s gas-fired grid are still only gradually being added.”
Tesla may still come out ahead of companies that “provide exemplary historic disclosures but only the vaguest assurances about how their net-zero commitments are going to be met,” Fickling concedes.
But “a clean-energy business with a market cap roughly equivalent to the S&P 500’s entire oil and gas sub-index should be capable of producing the information to help investors make their own minds up. Tesla’s slapdash emissions disclosure is a stain on an otherwise impressive record. A company that thrives on the power of the sun shouldn’t hide the footprint of its own operations in shadow.”