Tesla Tackles the Battery Problem Head On

Tesla Motors, and its growing fleet of electric vehicles, is a source of pride and promise that has been used as a rallying point by activists across the globe in their battle for a carbon-free, sustainable future. Factually though, there has been an underacknowledged problem facing the electric car industry for years – and environmentalism’s shining star has just smashed a brick through it.

Elon Musk at Tesla’s Battery Day – Credit: Tesla

To understand the importance of this news, you need to understand the magnitude of the problem. The pitch for electric vehicles is they are zero emission. While this is functionally true in terms of how they drive, it is technically false, as charging, mining, shipping and producing the batteries themselves can be a carbon emissions nightmare. To be fair, these vehicles are still better (by at least 40%) for the environment than cars powered by fossil fuels, but the problem does not stop there. Traditional lithium-ion batteries require a significant amount of a mineral called cobalt, which is mined under horrific conditions and often with the use of child labor.

When Tesla made twin announcements, one that it would be mining its own lithium in Nevada and the other that it is abandoning cobalt in favor of manganese, the fanfare was minor. Actually, this news went mostly unnoticed, as many did not understand the importance of this fundamental change. In the environmental community, however, this was big news to be celebrated.

Once Tesla completes its deal with Giga Metals, the company will be able to produce its batteries without the carbon emissions cost of shipping heavy metals from Australia, the Lithium triangle of South America and Africa. Furthermore, these materials will be mined under North American emissions and humanitarian regulations which will help to put a stopper on issues such as cancer, dead yaks floating downriver, and the previously mentioned child labor violations in Congo.

Aerial view of a Nickel mine in Western Australia

Contrast this with the battery in your iPhone, which uses metals mined from continents in the south, shipped to smelting and manufacturing sites in east Asia, and then shipped again to North America and Europe, you can see how the carbon emissions can really add up. This also says nothing about the remaining humanitarian issues, though it should be noted Apple has begun to make an effort to handle that, at least in regards to its smelting and manufacturing.

While Tesla’s change does not solve the remaining environmental issues involved with smelting or the hazardous waste disposal of spent batteries, it shows a willingness to admit to some remaining environmental problems and the responsibility to tackle them head on.

Sometimes in the rush to embrace today’s pressing issue (climate change), we have a tendency to ignore the next problem our solutions may cause. So, with all of the greenwashing we see from Fortune 500 companies, it is a pleasure to see one of them take fundamental steps to improve their supply chain and product, without being pressured to do so. This is highly unusual in today’s age and we should applaud it.

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