Clean Power

Published on December 3rd, 2015 | by Kyle Field


Elon Musk Speaks In France During COP21 Talks (VIDEO)

December 3rd, 2015 by  

Elon Musk has quickly become a global celebrity on the level of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as is evidenced by his increasing presence at world events and the number of people seeking his perspective on how to fix extremely complex global challenges. Yesterday, he spoke to a French University during the COP21 talks on climate change. His message, across all topics, can be summarized in once sentence:

“We need global governments to apply global revenue-neutral carbon taxes to level the playing field, which will allow sustainable energy to win.”

This message was reiterated over and over throughout the talk and no matter what angle the questions came in on, it was clear that he believes the problem is being overly complicated and spun in directions that simply do not add value. He started by talking through the carbon cycle and why that is the critical change that humans have brought to the planet. In a natural carbon cycle, plants grow, temporarily sequestering carbon, then as they die and decompose, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, effectively creating a closed loop of carbon recycling on the surface of the planet with no net increase in the atmosphere.


Humans kicked that up a level when we started tapping into oil under the surface of the earth, which contains massive quantities of carbon from ages long past (dino juice!), and as we burn the products of that oil, we reintroduce that carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in a (very large) net positive increase in carbon in the atmosphere.

In and of itself, this is not an issue. However, carbon in its many gaseous, post-combustion forms acts as a “greenhouse gas,” effectively trapping heat that would have normally radiated out from our planet into space. Being that it’s approaching wintertime in the northern hemisphere, a nice atmospheric blanket might sound nice right about now, but on the planetary scale, that is resulting in the gradual warming of our world.

The most direct impacts of this are on the ice caps near the poles of the planet, which are gradually melting, resulting in drastic increases in ocean levels across the globe. With 44% of the population living in coastal areas, this will have a massive impact on ½ of humans as ocean levels rise to forecasted levels. The (inconvenient) truth of this matter is that we really don’t know how good or bad it will be, but suffice it to say that none of the models look pretty.

That’s basically the message in a nutshell — we need to act now to reduce human-caused production of carbon from below the surface into our atmosphere. There’s a whole separate component of the equation when we look at how oceans absorb CO2 and convert it to carbonic acid, which is also the opposite of awesome.


This message put a new spin on biofuels for me. I had previously been largely of the mindset that biofuels are still humans burning things that put carbon into the atmosphere, but when we think back to where the message started, with the carbon cycle, biofuels start making more sense. Biofuels take surface carbon and convert it to some form of fuel that we can burn and generate electricity from, and as such, they are just following the natural surface carbon loop. This does not equate to biofuels being the perfect fuel… but, they are MUCH different in terms of carbon into the atmosphere when compared to fossil fuels.

So, why a carbon tax? Carbon taxes aim to apply the cost of the carbon that was put into the atmosphere… to the product that was produced. So, if the energy you used today was produced by burning natural gas, which put 3.2lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere, you should pay for that CO2 and the impact it has on the planet. Applying equitably priced carbon taxes will act as a forcing function to encourage the use of sustainable energy, which by definition has an unlimited supply (at least for the next billion years).

If you’re curious, take a look at the full Elon Musk talk from December 2nd below:

Images via Shutterstock & Tesla

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About the Author

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. TSLA investor. Tesla referral link:

  • Wayne Williamson

    cool video….

  • NRG4All

    I wish that the author had not used the word “global” in his one sentence synopsis. It gives the impression of some world-wide government. When, in fact, what Elon said was that “Each government should do what’s right regardless of what other governments are doing”. I know, just semantics, but I have some Republican acquaintances that would never get beyond the opening statement, much less listen to Elon’s presentation.

  • I love the idea of biofuels, but in my opinion, their time has come and gone. Switching to biofuels in the 1970s would have been perfect (Brazil almost completely made the switch to ethanol when OPEC began restricting oil sales during this time, and their oil usage per capita is fairly close to the U.S.A., where I abide), but adoption was slow and is still barely existent. Now I think it’s rather an unnecessary step to move from one combustible fuel to another, especially with the rate battery technology is improving and becoming cheaper. The combination of the first Gigafactory (as well as the several “other” factories being built by competitors in anticipation of the Gigafactory), and new battery tech such as ORNL’s new Li-S battery should make economy EVs a reality within the next few years. It would be more logical to leap to EVs, now, bypssing “cleaner” fuels all together. The only exception I’ll readily acknowledge is in the world of aviation. As far as I know, electric passenger planes are going to take quite a while to develop, and the world would therefore undoubtedly benefit from reduced net emissions from aircraft.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are likely some other niches where we will need liquid fuels, at least for a while. Some agriculture, some mining, some remote travel, and transoceanic shipping.

      Since we can do all those with biofuels that are drop-ins for diesel I think we should be working on switching to biofuels now. We could get that carbon problem solved while we look for ways to electrify those applications.

  • Dragon

    Hey, you stole my dino juice phrase! *shakes fist*

    Before you stole it from me (I assume), I stole it from this cartoon, which is pretty brilliant:

    • Kyle Field

      The problem with my brain is that it selectively creates and retains awesome. It was likely your awesome as I read quite a bit of it quite recently but I honestly can’t say for sure where this stuff comes from 😛

  • ROBwithaB

    The unlikely superhero, Captain Awkward.

    • Kraylin

      lol I find Elon’s stutter and straight forward approach to be a refreshing change to the polished politician/executive who doesn’t really answer the question at all… Fortunately once Elon finally gets the words out he makes a lot of sense and he has the courage to see his vision through. I am a huge Elon Musk fan, but I still love the title “captain awkward” in an endearing way. It doesn’t have the same ring as “IronMan”….

      • Bob_Wallace

        ” I still love the title “captain awkward” in an endearing way.”

        Me, too. I love the informal way Elon talks to his audience as opposed to the pre-written, well practiced presentation of most CEOs. The guy talks to people. And he seems to enjoy what he’s doing.

        • eveee

          He doesn’t just stutter. He shrugs his shoulders like his jacket or shirt is not tailored right. He is more like the penultimate nerd than the slick, Silcon Valley CEO.

          • Kyle Field

            The penultimate nerd that doesn’t mind just saying it how it is. He’s amazingly well spoken and never seems to be caught off guard (except for by the one gal who tried to sneak in like 8 questions and was almost tackled by like 3 people and didn’t really seem to even get 1 question out).

          • Bob_Wallace

            I wonder how many ‘trade secrets’ Tesla is keeping back?

            I wish they had a site where one could ask questions such as “How much does a Supercharge bay cost?” or “Are you going to include SC use for the Mod3?” type stuff and get a ‘straight from Tesla’ answer.

            I understand that some things need to be left unanswered but with Tesla one would think them few. The company has been very open as a way of spurring on other manufacturers.

            (I’m really interested in the SC math. My pencil says there is a lot of money to purchase solar panels. Will SolarCity build solar farms for Tesla?)

          • Kyle Field

            I would put money on SolarCity building solar farms for Tesla. Ironically, Teslas factory in freemont is struggling with a nox violation related to their uber efficient painting process. About the other questions…I agree that it would be awesome if there were an official tesla motors forum and could see them doing something along these lines, actually.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Looks like SolarCity has gotten their feet wet with a couple of small solar farms. One a ten acre project and another a large ground mount installation on a farm.

            I’m guessing that there is enough capital raised at $2,000 per EV to install the Superchargers and buy enough solar farm ‘shares’ to provide all the electricity used plus sell enough to maintain the system.

    • Carl Raymond S

      Interesting how he becomes more comfortable when answering questions. (compare second half of video to first half). Perhaps he rehearses too many times in his head, then tries to deliver the ‘show’. Once he starts thinking on his feet – he’s fluent. Should do interviews rather than presentations where possible.
      Confession: Had a phobia of public speaking and some embarrassing freezes in younger days – feeling pangs of hypocrisy just making this comment.

      • Martin

        A lot of people have problems with public speaking.
        I takes a person with a lots of guts and practice to have an easy time to talk to a large crowd.

  • Bob_Wallace

    “Carbon taxes aim to apply the cost of the carbon that was put into the atmosphere… to the product that was produced.”

    Another way to look at carbon taxes is to call them a partial recovery of the external costs of fossil fuels. We pay an enormous amount of money and suffer a lot of health problems because of coal and petroleum. Up until now they have gotten a free ride and been allowed to dump their waste into our atmosphere (and water). A carbon tax will help repay a portion of the hundreds of billions/trillions we’ve spent over the years.

    Price fossil fuels at their real cost and they will go away.

    • JamesWimberley

      The carbon tax is the little cape the matador starts using just before the kill, when the bull is exhausted and can barely move. It will become politically feasible only after the main battle against fossil fuels has been won by other methods.

      • eveee

        Yes. Its a combination maneuver. Between the emerging reality of fossil fuel disruption by renewables, storage, and EVs and social rejection, FF are going to have a hard time. Despite the annoying presence of climate denying politicians in US, UK, and Australia, the end is near for FF. The public is way ahead of the politicians and wants something done ASAP. We are about to witness a sea change where politicians start embracing GHG reductions to get votes.

      • Matt

        Then could we call out the guys on horseback to stick the fossil fuel bull, by dropping all subsidies to FF production, refinement, transportation, and use?

  • Bob_Wallace

    “This message put a new spin on biofuels for me. I had previously been largely of the mindset that biofuels are still humans burning things that put carbon into the atmosphere, but when we think back to where the message started, with the carbon cycle, biofuels start making more sense.”

    Good. Worst case, biofuels somewhat speed up the part of the natural cycle from ‘stored in plant’ to ‘stored in air’. And biofuels must be produced with clean energy, not fossil fuels. And they must not lower food production to the point at which food supplies are stressed.

    Biofuels are a niche solution. A way to bring clean energy to places where we don’t (yet) have battery/electricity solution.

    Even if biofuels are not ‘perfect’ they at least give us an alternative to extracting more carbon from underneath the Earth’s surface and adding it to the problem.

    • sault

      Plus, as we’ve seen with palm oil, we shouldn’t let biofuel demand lead to increased deforestation or other detrimental land use changes.

      • Bob_Wallace

        True. But we do have biofuels which can be grown responsibility.

        Switchgrass and other perennial grasses can be grown on soil which is unusable for food crops. They require only limited amounts of fertilizer and water while being established. They improve the quality of the soil on which they grow. And they fix carbon in the soil.

        Canola and other mustard seed crops can be grown in between crops of wheat, thus taking no cropland out of service. They can grow on residual fertilizer left from the wheat crop. They decrease erosion. And they increase organic matter in the soil.

        • Kyle Field

          I’m with you…these are key points as we explore the nuances of how biofuels fit. Palm oil is an absolute mess and a great cautionary tale as we move forward with biofuels. In July, we drove for hours in Guatemala through endless palm oil plantations. It was disheartening knowing that 5 or 10 years ago many of those same fields were filled with lush (carbon dense) rainforest…

        • NRG4All

          You are right if the bio-fuel we burn in one heating season can be replenished in the next growing season. On our way into town we pass by a wood pellet manufacturer. We see a mountain of logs that end up as wood pellets. We also see the finished product on hundreds of pallets in the yard. By winter’s end there are only a few pallets remaining. Thus, what took 40 years to grow are consumed in just one heating season. This eventually has to lead to deforestation.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Not necessarily. If you cut one fortieth of the forest each year then you are cutting at a sustainable level.

            The concept became very clear to me about 45 years ago while riding a train through the French countryside. Farmers would plant trees as ‘living fence posts’ around the perimeter of their fields. Then when the trees were adequately tall they’d cut off the part above the top strand of wire and use it for their kitchen stove. The tree would then sprout new leaders.
            As the years progressed the farmers would work their way around the fields cutting off a year’s worth of kitchen fuel and letting future supplies grow in their wake. A quick look showed one recently cut trees, further back trees just sprouting, then modest sized tops, then tops ready to cut. —

            With forests there may be slower growback after the first year or two. The 40 year rotation might need to be a bit slower after a harvest or two.

          • NRG4All

            That’s true and if you cut 1/80th of the forest, the forest will grow. The question then becomes, how many are cutting at the same forest? I liked the French example because in that scenario, the individual farmer is in control of his “forest”.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We probably need to classify forests into resource (fuel, pulp) forests and carbon sink forests.

            I’m wondering if anyone is working on replanting the vast western forests lost to climate warming/bark beetles. Do we have another species that can grow in warmer temps and be immune to the bark beetle problem?

            Those dead trees will store carbon for only so long. As they rot the carbon is back in play. We need to be growing something to take it up.

          • NRG4All

            Right you are. Case in point, there was a horrendous fire called the Rodeo-Chedeski fire in AZ about 10 years ago. Some replanting has been done, but still for 40 miles you can see that what is growing is no where near the number of trees that were destroyed. And the bark beetles are a whole another problem. That issue was raised in the series “Years Living Dangerously”. The drying of the climate due to global warming changing weather patterns has made it difficult for the trees to repel the beetles. When there was plenty of water, the trees could produce enough sap to help repel the bugs.

  • James

    Excellent. Elon is the best (and only?) ethical capitalist on the planet

    • Ross

      Elon’s central request is for the governments of the world to end the now perverse incentive to obtain energy from burning fossil fuels.

      Just by correcting the incentives we remove the need for ethical capitalists to fix the broken energy system.

    • Jens Stubbe

      There are a few guys that has done a lot more for the environment and still does – and do not boast about it. And then there are all the guys that just do it because it is good business. Samsung has cut emissions by 55%. And I could mention at least three Danish companies that has saved more energy than the country has ever spent in total. And thus factors more than Elon has achieved and probably will achieve in his career.

      All this is not said to discourage Elon Musk or to take any credit from his important contributions to a more sustainable world, and I also think his talk is spot on.

      By the way I would guess he does not want to be considered a saint – just sane would probably suit him just as fine.

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