A big part of the allure of electric cars is the idea that the consumer is doing something good for the environment by opting to drive electric rather than a traditional fossil-fuel powered car. In the context of Tesla, the world’s most famous electric car the decision to go electric while remaining fashionable is enough for many to pat themselves on the back and not delve into the specifics of their new toy. I’m here to tell you that the purchase of your shiny new electric car might not be all it’s cracked up to be, if you’re an environmental warrior chances are you know this, the problem is the general population does not.
For an electric car the negative impact on the environment starts with the production of its lithium ion battery. If you’re buying a Tesla in the US chances are your battery will be produced at what’s known as the Gigafactory. According to the linked website “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy through increasingly affordable electric vehicles”. A Tesla’s battery chemistry is a mix of nickel, cobalt, and aluminium. This combination is touted for its energy density, however the mere quest to attain the elements required to make the battery i.e. cobalt mining in the DRC leads to negative environmental consequences.
By 2021 more than 10 million battery packs for cars will be able to be made due to increased production capacity. The bulk of production coming from countries who still heavily rely on the burning of coal for electricity: China, Thailand, Germany, and Poland. Some of Tesla’s batteries are produced in the aforementioned countries using dirty power and as a result carries greater negative externalities. Knowing where the electricity that fuels production comes from is crucial because it’s what much of the carbon footprint from the car comes down to. If you plan on being an environmentally conscious consumer of any electric vehicle make sure to do a bit of research as to where your model’s battery was made, even amongst one maker battery origin can vary.
On the road, your electric car is reducing your carbon footprint, but just like with your food the big question regarding the increase in consumption of electric cars will be “Where is your electric car coming from?” Failure to inquire about the production process behind the vehicle you choose will render the goal of its purchase somewhat meaningless and see the consumer become a victim of greenwashing.
Bottomline: How your E-Car was produced holds the answer to whether or not it helps the environment.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).