Tesla’s CEO and visionary, Elon Musk, has no problem thinking big. Out of this world big. Mars big. “Mr Musk has declared his ambition to die on the red planet, albeit not on impact.”  Back on Earth, his automotive company Tesla is also taking off with a 926.72% stock price increase over the past 5 years.  Wall Street has made a big bet on Tesla, but will it pay off?
Many investors and Tesla enthusiast are bullish on the future of the company. This hype has certainly been reflected in the stock price, but even Tesla may be humbled by supply chain challenges due to climate change. Every company should have concerns, and Tesla is no exception. Henderson states that there is broad consensus in the scientific community that global warming is being driven by increases in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Implications of Earth’s climate warming are serious; they include rising water levels, changing weather patterns, increased incidences of extreme weather, pressure on water and food supply, political and security risks, human health risks, and an impact on wildlife and ecosystems.  Essentially these physical changes will affect every company and human being. Tesla relies on a global supply base as well as in-house manufacturing. Consider Tesla’s HQ and main manufacturing facilities located in the US southwest region. If we stay on our current climate change path, by the end of the century the southwest could see up to two additional months of extreme heat (>95°F) within the already warm region.  This has major implications on employee health, air conditioning cost, energy usage, water supply, and coastal water levels.
While the automotive industry will likely suffer challenges due to climate change, they are also a contributor to the problem and therefore have opportunities to mitigate the situation. Traditional gasoline-powered vehicles emit GHGs out the tailpipes when the car is in operation. Large GHG emissions also result from the vehicle production process itself. According to Hao, the lifecycle GHG emissions from vehicle production are 6.2 tons in the USA and 9.6 tons in China.  To reduce these lifecycle GHG emissions, manufacturing sites throughout the global industry, both OEMs and suppliers, would need to be updated to operate more efficiently and use cleaner sources of energy.
The automotive industry might pollute, but what does that have to do with Tesla? They only produce battery-powered vehicles. At least they are doing their part to help with climate change, right? Tesla is currently building the largest battery factory in the world, named the Gigafactory. According to Tesla’s 2014 press release, the factory will produce 85GWh of batteries per year by 2020 to support their electric vehicle and stationary storage markets.  They have even released all their patents to spur innovation in the field. For these reasons, many people hold the belief that Tesla is the most environmentally friendly automotive company.
As of 2015, a majority 66.3% of the world’s electricity is still produced using fossil fuels.  Tesla’s main market by revenue, the USA , is not much better. In 2015, the USA produced 65% of electricity with fossil fuels.  This means that the majority of Tesla car owners will simply be moving the GHG emissions from the tailpipe of their car to the smoke stack of their local fossil fuel burning utility company. Depending on where your electricity comes from, the fuel source, the efficiency of the plant/grid, and the MPG of your gas-powered alternate vehicle, you may very well emit fewer GHGs by driving your old gas-powered vehicle than a new battery-powered Tesla. Also, with Tesla’s new Gigafactory, what happens in 10 years when all these batteries no longer hold a charge and need to be disposed of?
These are issues that I would recommend Tesla be more transparent on. One of their competitors, Ford Motor Company, has published an annual sustainability report for the past 18 years.  I think Tesla could use a similar document to highlight what they are doing now and into the future. They could explicitly state their plans for their production facilities and their future sustainability approach.
On the surface, Tesla is the “green” choice, but if a consumer truly wants to emit less GHGs, is it better to purchase a Tesla or stick with their gas-powered vehicle? The Gigafactory will mass produce batteries like the world has never seen, does a sustainable disposal plan exists? Will Tesla be able to change our climate for the better through a gigantic battery factory, mass production of battery electric vehicles, stationary energy storage systems, and the release of their intellectual property to the world? Or will climate change shape and determine the future of Tesla? Either way, perhaps Mars will be an option by the time we find out. (797 words)
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