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Elon Musk and Tesla have always been associated with sustainability and carbon neutrality. Elon Musk has often been praised as a hero and a leader at the forefront of the fight against climate change. But the fact is, Tesla isn’t as sustainable as it claims to be.
In March 2022, Tesla received approval to build a Gigafactory in the water-protected area of Brandenburg in Berlin. The town’s groundwater levels have already been steadily decreasing for the past three decades; adding the set-up of a Gigafactory to that scenario spells disaster for the locals and the surrounding water ecosystem.
Additionally, Tesla primarily uses lithium-based batteries in their electric vehicles. Lithium mining uses enormous amounts of water – one tonne of lithium requires 500,000 gallons of water. Experts say that the increasing demand for EVs means that around 11 metric tonnes of lithium batteries will be discarded by 2030, as lithium batteries have a shorter lifespan than other batteries. Also, battery-grade lithium is manufactured by exposing the raw materials to extremely high temperatures – a process that consumes a lot of energy.
The South American countries of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina are the largest suppliers of lithium; they are also some of the driest regions on the planet. Lithium mining activities threaten their already scarce water supply and increase the risk of contaminating the supply, thus making the water a health hazard for the residents.
In 2021, Tesla signed a deal to receive lithium supply from the Gangfeng Lithium Co., a Chinese company headquartered in Xinyu, China. Gangfeng Lithium receives its lithium supply from Australia, the world’s second-biggest lithium reserve. We can see how the supply network runs through all parts of the world; this supply chain also contributes to global emissions as most of the transportation used relies on fossil fuels.
Furthermore, the sustainability of EVs also depends on the grid that it obtains electricity from. For example, in California, a good amount of the energy comes from renewables, and hence the local energy grid is comparatively green. On the other hand, if a grid gets its electricity from coal-powered plants, it generates emissions to charge the EV, making it less sustainable. And as Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries are mostly powered by coal-generated electricity, it negatively impacts the sustainable business model that Tesla claims to be.
Electric vehicles are a great start to transforming our society into a greener one, but even this seemingly sustainable option has its drawbacks. Thus, we must find better ways to recycle batteries and other components. It is also necessary to phase out the usage of fossil fuels in local grids and shift to renewables. As lithium batteries are a big part of the problem, the focus should be on finding alternatives to lithium batteries, such as sodium-ion batteries or zinc batteries.
And so, we can say that while Tesla may have taken the first step toward the formation of a sustainable, green society, they still have a long way to go.