Elon Musk’s sustainability dreams for Tesla should start in his own backyard

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Last night, while presenting Tesla’s latest “Master Plan” to investors, Elon Musk attempted to cast his company as one that would usher in “a renewable energy Earth.” But that will be very difficult if Musk does not first get his own house in order.

Tesla makes electric vehicles, solar panels and batteries to store sustainable electricity. A transition to clean energy will need those things. But making those things must also be done in a sustainable and humane way. That requires transparency and accountability, something we’re not used to from Musk and his companies.

Let’s start with some basics. For any company that says it cares about the planet, revealing how much pollution it produces is one of the first steps to take. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, can you? Tesla is several years behind other automakers and technology companies in disclosing greenhouse gas emissions and setting targets to reduce climate pollution.

Transparency and accountability, something we are not used to from Musk and his companies

In comparison, Ford earned an “A” grade for its climate change disclosures for the first time in 2019 from the CDP, a go-to organization for evaluating companies’ environmental reporting efforts. That can be taken with a grain of salt, as Ford still makes plenty of gas-guzzling cars. But so far, Tesla has consistently received “F” grades for not disclosing its environmental impact.

Tesla did share a partial picture of its carbon footprint in its 2021 impact report, which it released last year. But it still misses what is probably the company’s biggest source of emissions: those that come from its supply chain. While this is difficult to calculate, climate advocates have pushed companies to report this category of “upstream” pollution because it usually makes up a large portion of the total footprint.

Upstream greenhouse gas emissions from EV battery production account for about 80 percent of climate pollution from Tesla’s Model 3 battery pack, the company said in its impact report. But we still don’t know how much pollution that is. “Prioritizing our supply chain is critical and we have a lot of work to do to encourage suppliers to provide energy and emissions data for us to report on,” the report said. The SEC is currently considering whether such disclosures should be made mandatory. Rival EV companies Polestar and Rivian, meanwhile, have commissioned a report published this month urging the industry to clean up pollution from its supply chain to meet global climate goals.

There are other potential supply chain hazards that Musk needs to acknowledge, such as what happens when you mine in people’s backyards. That tears up landscapes and tends to piss off a lot of people in the process. The US’s largest planned lithium mine, which has just broken ground in Nevada, has angered nearby tribes and farmers who are concerned about the environmental impact. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe have filed a lawsuit to try to stop its development, which they say could destroy sacred and traditional sites. The area, Thacker Pass, was the site of an 1865 massacre of at least 31 Paiute people by federal soldiers.

Musk talks about a clear path forward to buy enough lithium to satisfy the EV industry’s growing hunger. “There still seems to be quite a bit of confusion about lithium,” Musk said at the investor event last night. “Lithium is very common … There is enough lithium ore in the United States to electrify the entire Earth.” The “actual limiting factor,” he says, is the ability to refine the lithium into material that can be used in a battery.

It’s hard to avoid the damage you don’t acknowledge

The supply chain for cobalt, another key material for EV batteries, has been fueled by allegations of human rights violations. One of Tesla’s cobalt suppliers has its miners do physically demanding work with little pay, water or food. The edge reported last year. Tesla has not had a public relations department to respond to allegations like this since 2019.

Again, it’s hard to avoid the damage you don’t acknowledge. And without addressing all the thorny issues posed by the clean energy transition, you risk repeating the damage previously done by fossil fuels and other extractive industries.

At this point, Musk takes a page out of the billionaire with a Batman complex playbook. (Think Jeff Bezos becomes a major climate philanthropist while Amazon pollutes neighborhoods near its warehouses.) He’s another rich guy who thinks he can save the world with some tech solution. But he sidesteps some of the fundamental issues that led to the environmental crisis in the first place, such as exploiting resources as if they were limitless while ignoring the legitimate concerns of communities.

Fostering a healthier environment could start in the workplace for Tesla, whose employees have reported racism and sexual harassment — the kind of allegations Musk has made joked about on Twitter. Speaking of Twitter, hate speech and misinformation about climate change has exploded on the platform since Musk took over. That’s a lot of mess to clean up, Musk. And if that’s out of reach, then maybe also to lead the fight against climate change.


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