Tesla's carbon footprint revives old question: Just how green is the EV industry?

It turns out that EVs realize net emissions reductions relative to gas-powered cars only after tens of thousands of miles on the road.

Published: April 29, 2023 11:30pm

This week, electric vehicle market leader Tesla released its 2022 Impact Report disclosing the company's carbon emissions — including direct operations, customer charging and supply chain. 

The report took many by surprise: Tesla's CO2 emissions amounted to 30.7 million tons last year, a substantial leap from the 2.5 million metric tons it reported in 2021. The primary reason for the sharp uptick is that the company disclosed its supply chain emissions for 2022 — something it did not include in the 2021 numbers. 

As President Biden pushes to effectively require two-thirds of cars sold by 2032 to be electric and climate hawks continue to upend the global energy industry with the demand for a renewable energy "revolution," this report is resurrecting a years-old question: Just how "green" is the electric vehicle industry? 

The answer to this question depends in large part on the answers to two prior questions:

  • Where do electric vehicles derive energy from?
  • How do their emissions compare to the CO2 emitted by gas cars? 

Electricity is an energy carrier; it isn't a form of energy itself. So, when it comes to EVs, the cars have to get the electricity from somewhere. In the U.S., fossil fuels still supply 60% of the energy for electricity generation, with an additional 19% coming from nuclear, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This leaves renewable energy sources with a combined share of roughly 20% of U.S. electricity generation. 

In other words, when a Tesla or any other electric vehicle is plugged into a charging station, chances are that station is getting its power from fossil fuels or nuclear. 

Charging aside, the making of an electric vehicle also requires substantial levels of emissions often omitted from carbon footprint estimates. Tesla's own report confirms tens of millions of tons of CO2 are directly and indirectly emitted in support of day-to-day operations, including shipping/transporting materials, assembling products, and obtaining the raw materials necessary for production. 

Most EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Lithium is just one of the elements crucial to EV battery production. All of these critical minerals are mined from the earth.

According to MIT's Climate Portal, 15 metric tons of CO2 are emitted to obtain just 1 metric ton of lithium.

This doesn't count other key EV battery minerals like cobalt, which "often produces pollution that leaches into neighboring rivers and water sources," according to Earth.org.

On top of this, only about 5% of lithium-ion batteries produced are reportedly recycled, compared to approximately 90% of ICE lead-acid batteries. 

In order to fully divorce EV production from fossil fuels, it would require a total overhaul of energy infrastructure worldwide, not just in the U.S. While plans like the Green New Deal have been proposed to achieve an overhaul domestically at a reported cost of $93 trillion, the time and costs involved in accomplishing such a transition globally defy reliable calculation. 

While gas cars and electric cars would appear to have drastically different environmental impacts, the distinctions are, on closer inspection, less stark. Indeed, it turns out that EVs realize net emissions reductions relative to  gas-powered cars only after tens of thousands of miles on the road.

How long does it take for an EV to offset its carbon footprint compared to a gas car? 

Simply put: It depends. 

Reuters analyzed data produced by an Argonne National Laboratory model "to determine at what point a typical electric vehicle (EV) becomes cleaner than an equivalent gasoline car in terms of its lifetime carbon footprint." Comparing a Tesla Model 3 to a Toyota Corolla, it found the break-even point could be as high as 78,700 miles, while Tesla Model Y compared to a Honda CR-V has a break-even point as high as 89,000 miles. 

As for the EV giant's overall carbon footprint: The Verge notes that while a company like Ford has a substantially larger carbon footprint than Tesla (337 million metric tons vs. 30.7 million), this is because a) Ford sold more than triple the cars that Tesla did, and b) most Ford cars — at least for now — run on gas, and Tesla's pollution level only "seems to be growing" as it continues to scale. 

Follow Addison on Twitter.

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