Zero emissions: nothing but hot air?

Is Tesla's market victory cause to celebrate for those who mourned the death of the electric car?

Scroll this


This month, a once-promising and lauded electric car company, Fisker, has gone completely under in Detroit. Another electric car company, Tesla, reported profits for the first time in ten years. Consumer Reports has also tested Tesla’s roughly $95,000 Model S sedan and gave it the a nearly perfect review. Stocks for the company have soared, and more affordable models of the electric vehicle are slated for production — but not till at least 2017.

Is Tesla’s market victory cause to celebrate for those who mourned the death of the electric car? And, on a further-thinking scale, should an electric car’s projected success give environmentalists a breath of fresh air? Between Tesla’s successful model and Google’s autonomous car, the tech industry seems to be getting behind the continued use of private vehicles with their words and dollars. Their vision of the future involves cars that may do better in emissions. But they are still cars — heavy objects that do not transport people efficiently and require costly, wasteful infrastructure no matter what. And the concept of zero emissions — a promise of the electric car industry — may be a faulty one at best.

Projjal Dutta, Director of Sustainability Initiatives for the MTA, has serious doubts to share about the zero emissions claim. In a post on UBM’s Future Cities site, Dutta, an adviser for City Atlas, argues that the claim of a ‘zero-emissions’ car, whether from Tesla, or manufacturers like Nissan and India’s Mahindra, cannot be true now and will likely not be soon. Dutta argues that “electric cars are merely displacing emissions.” Further, Dutta warns, “For large parts of the auto-dependent world, emissions-free electric generation is not only not happening right now, it’s unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.” (Italics ours.)

Dutta points out that that electricity is often powered by coal, so that the while addition of a larger electric car market to the grid may reduce emissions in some parts of the planet, depending on the source of electricity by location, conversely “…in a part of the world with lots of coal-fired generation (sadly, much more of the world fits that latter description than the former) it could lead to more emissions and more emissions-related deaths.” In displacing our emissions and conflating this with the too-good-to-be-true figure of ‘zero,’ perhaps we are displacing our energies as well.

Another contributor to Future Cities recently offered a 3-step plan to electrify transit by 2030. The first two steps involve creating an electric vehicle infrastructure and building out incentives aimed at converting urban car owners to EV users. The last step is to eliminate single-user vehicle use as public transit converts to electric.

So why not move directly to step three? Creating more infrastructure, producing electric batteries, and combating the 225 million registered internal combustion cars in the U.S. with more cars may do little for the overall health of the planet, and will likely do nothing for the majority of Americans who currently cannot afford to benefit from the prestige and potential subsidies that electric vehicles may offer. The bottom line is that attention focused on cars — whether electric or not — is still a misplacement of energy, effort, and dollars. Support for cleaner, more energy-efficient public transportation (and actual forms of zero emission transport) will likely provide a clearer, cleaner, more sensible route toward the future.

Is the new Tesla sedan — the shining image at the top of this page — already a symbol of the past? To fully grasp the transportation and emissions challenge, take a look at Hans Rosling’s latest video for the Guardian, which shows the disproportion between the Tesla-shopping world and the rest.