Teslas Are Greener, But Are Still Cars

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Modal_split_of_inland_passenger_transport,_2013_(¹)_(%_of_total_inland_passenger-km)_YB16Teslas are much more benign environmentally than gasoline or diesel cars, but they are still typically single-occupant automobiles. Given the continued dominance of automobiles as the primary form of transportation in most countries, even in train-mad Europe as the chart shows, it’s critical to reduce the impact of them.

The best information currently available about the relative climate change merits of electric vs gas cars is from a two-year study by the Union of Concerned Scientists of the USA. This US-map representation shows the miles per gallon that a gas car would have to achieve to be as good as an electric car in terms of CO2 emissions.


Note the “achieve.” This isn’t the notoriously misleading EPA rating, but the actual achieved mileage. There are some places you could do better with a Prius than with a Tesla, but there are no places you can do better with a plain gas or diesel car in the USA.

Below is the US average chart from the UCS calculator. Battery electric cars are a lot better than gas cars and substantially better on average than hybrids. And as the grid decarbonizes, with coal dropping off rapidly and wind and solar coming online rapidly, the advantages of electric cars are just improving.


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“But wait,” you say, “I asked about Teslas, not rinky dink Nissan Leafs and Mitsubishi i-MIEVs!” Okay, let’s look at a Tesla. In fact, let’s go hog wild and look at a Tesla Model S P90D with Ludicrous mode. And let’s do it in Los Angeles, car culture central with all of its freeways.


That’s right, a tricked-out Tesla has a third the CO2e emissions of an average gas car in LA.

main-qimg-c68ba76c457c40a78a09ed1f67c7c61f“Wait a minute,” you say to yourself, “that’s just the fuel comparison. What about building the things in the first place, huh, huh, huh?!” After all, there’s got to be something wrong. Well, no, the above is a full lifecycle CO2e emissions count from manufacturing through scrapping.

Yes, Teslas take a bit more to build, but the difference in emissions after building dwarf the increased CO2 load of driving. Put another way, if you were choosing between a BMW 5 Series and a Tesla Model S to buy, mount on a pedestal, admire, and never drive, the BMW would win. But if you actually are going to, you know, drive your car, the Tesla is off the charts better.

“Fine, fine,” you say, “but what about the batteries. They must be toxic, right? And turn into toxic landfill?” Wrong again.

First, it’s necessary to understand the contents of our [Tesla] ESS. The cells in our battery are composed mainly of lithium metal oxides. They are manufactured in Japan, a country with very strict environmental laws. Emissions and effluents are strictly controlled and monitored. The cells meet the requirements set forth by the Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment 2002/95/EC (commonly referred to as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive or RoHS). In other words, they do not contain any of the following:

  1. Lead
  2. Mercury
  3. Cadmium
  4. Hexavalent chromium (chromium xxx or Cr6+)
  5. Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB)
  6. Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)

Above and beyond RoHS, our lithium ion cells contain no heavy metals, nor any toxic materials. In fact, our cells and ESS, by law, could be disposed of by putting them in a landfill. However, we have no intention of landfilling our ESS.

What is Tesla doing with them now? Recycling them with high-efficiency processes, actually.

Umicore’s factory plants are able to recycle our batteries into completely reusable materials and substantially reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing Lithium-ion batteries.

The Umicore battery recycling technology is able to save at least 70 percent on CO2 emissions at the recovery and refining of these valuable metals. It does this by creating “products” and “byproducts,” rather than following a mechanical separation process.

Secondary uses are already foreseen for used battery packs from Tesla due to the rapid charge, high capacity, and battery management features.

After 10-15 years when the battery in an electric car is reaching the end of its life and the owner moves on to pastures new, it doesn’t necessarily spell the end for the battery itself, even if the car is heading for the junk yard. 80 percent charge might mean reduced range in your car, but that’s still a lot of energy storage with plenty of potential.

Re-using old batteries for other purposes is something General Motors and the ABB Group is exploring. Old Chevy Volt batteries could be put to use as stationary storage, either in the home or at a more commercial level.

Meanwhile, what about the environmental byproducts of internal combustion cars?


That means that driving a Tesla for 8 years the same way you would a normal car avoids the following emissions, especially if the electricity comes from cleaner sources of electricity such as renewables, hydro, or nuclear power:

  • Just over 90,000 pounds of greenhouse gases
  • About 300 lbs of nitrous oxide, a key contributor to smog and an annual killer of humans
  • Just over 600 pounds of hydrocarbons — soot — a key contributor to air pollution and particulate matter problems exacerbating respiratory problems
  • And about 4,600 pounds of carbon monoxide, which is basically just a killer in any concentrations.

What are the health impacts of this comparable level of pollution?

Motor vehicle emissions contribute to air pollution and are a major ingredient in the creation of smog in some large cities. A 2013 study by MIT indicates that 53,000 early deaths occur per year in the United States alone because of vehicle emissions. According to another study from the same university, traffic fumes alone cause the death of 5000 people every year just in the United Kingdom.

So, yes, Teslas are a lot less harmful to the environment than internal combustion cars. But that doesn’t mean that they are benign, it just means that they are a much better choice. Not owning a car at all and living in dense downtown cores, walking, and taking transit is an even better choice, but not a choice most people have or make.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 730 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard