The most damning comment I’ve ever read about Elon Musk was attributed to Xi Jinping, communist China’s leader possibly for life. According to the Wall Street Journal, Xi regards Musk as a “technology utopian with no political allegiance to any country.” Rest assured, Xi’s assessment was based on intelligence gathered by some of the world’s finest spooks.
Musk’s perceived lack of patriotism is why China granted Tesla a favored status that most foreign companies can only dream about. The Journal reported that Xi “rewrote the rulebook” to allow foreign companies sole ownership of auto ventures so Musk would open an electric-vehicle factory in Shanghai. The publication said that China showered Musk with “cheap land, low-interest loans and tax incentives,” expecting in return that Tesla would groom local suppliers and bolster lagging Chinese electric-vehicle players.
Xi played Musk like a fiddle, and today China has a thriving and competitive domestic electric vehicle industry, and the country’s dominance of the global supply chain to manufacture EV batteries is possibly unstoppable. Tesla is so in bed with China that when criticisms of the company’s vehicles were mounting on social media, it asked the country’s censors to silence its critics. So much for Musk’s claim that he’s a “free speech absolutist.”
Musk has repeatedly spoken in glowing terms about China, saying how much he admires the country’s leadership and the work ethic of its citizens, despite most Americans viewing the communist country as their “greatest enemy.” As best I can determine, Musk has never once criticized China’s environmental record or practices at home or abroad.
The silence is notable given that at Tesla’s recent investor day, Musk presented his “master plan” for planet Earth that extended beyond the auto sector and includes decarbonizing the global electric grid as well as all industry, shipping, and air travel, too.
Musk’s China handlers aren’t quite yet on board with his vision. According to Global Energy Monitor, China in 2022 granted more new coal power capacity than any year since 2015, and indications are its full steam ahead for China’s coal plant construction during the next few years.
“While China is making rapid progress in scaling up clean energy, the country’s power system remains dependent on coal power capacity for meeting electricity peak loads and managing the variability of demand and clean power supply,” according to GEM. “The continued addition of new coal power capacity implies insufficient emphasis on overcoming the power system and power market constraints that perpetuate dependence on coal.”
Not a peep out of Musk. He wouldn’t dare criticize his beloved China.
For the record, China’s flourishing electric vehicle industry and its dominance of the world’s EV supply chain wasn’t driven by environmental concerns. The country concluded in the 90s that its auto industry could never compete with the leading global gas engine manufacturers, so China pivoted and focused on electric vehicles. The country deftly acquired sources for metals and minerals required for EV manufacturing, sometimes by retaining the services of well-connected consultants, such as President Biden’s son, Hunter.
It’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060 notwithstanding, China cares as much about the environment as it does human rights. In Indonesia, Chinese companies are partnering with Indonesian companies to export refined nickel products, a crucial component of many EV batteries. The business has ravaged Indonesia’s environment and caused untold social devastation,
“Labor exploitation, economic injustices, and environmental degradation are undermining the socio-ecological transformation promised by electric vehicles,” Pius Ginting, coauthor of a report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation think tank on the industry, told a reporter from Wired. “The public needs to know the reality of what’s happening.”
Tesla last August struck a $5 billion nickel-supply agreement with Indonesia President Joko Widodo. Bloomberg reported in January that Tesla had reached a preliminary deal to set up an electric vehicle factory in that country. Musk appears to have ignored an open letter signed by dozens of non-governmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth, not to invest in Indonesia’s nickel industry because of environmental concerns. The NGOs said in their letter that nickel mining was causing increased deforestation and polluting rivers, lakes, and the beaches.
Tesla recently confirmed that it plans to invest more than $10 billion to build a massive battery-production facility the company refers to as a Gigafactory near Monterrey, a Mexican industrial hub close to the Texan border. Tesla’s Mexican suppliers already have easy access to the U.S. with a dedicated border lane near Laredo, Texas.
Environmental groups and other critics have expressed concerns about the lack of long-term planning over the Mexican region’s water supply and the negative effect shortages could have on residents. Indeed, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) less than a month ago said publicly that Tesla would not receive permits if there was not enough water in northern Mexico.
“If there is no water, no, there would be no possibilities,” AMLO said. “The permits are simply not issued for that, I mean it is not feasible.”
One can only speculate about AMLO’s position reversal.
Musk has so far been silent on this Bloomberg investigative report that traced much of the aluminum in Ford’s F-150 to a refinery in Brazil allegedly responsible for sickening thousands of people.
From the Bloomberg story:
For consumers seeking to lower their carbon footprints, the environmental and social costs of electric vehicles may be greater than they realize. The human toll from the extraction of minerals used in batteries has been well-documented: cobalt and copper from the Democratic Republic of Congo; lithium from Chile; nickel from Indonesia. But the damage along the aluminum supply chain has been largely unexamined. It was only after Hydro and other companies announced last year that they were supplying aluminum parts for the F-150 EV that the trail back to Brazil became traceable.”
What was also revealing that the owner of the polluting refinery is a Norwegian company majority owned by the Norwegian government. Norway is hailed as one of the most climate progressive European countries.
Musk so far has expressed no outrage or concern that fertile Michigan farmland will be destroyed so that Ford can build an electric battery plant in co-operation with a Chinese battery manufacturer that Musk knows well because it is one of his suppliers. One’s credibility as an environmentalist is undermined if they believe destroying food producing farmland is making good use of the planet’s resources.
I’m increasingly learning that there are environmental hazards with electric vehicles that haven’t been factored in claims that they are better for the environment. Arthur Frederick (Fritz) Hasler, a former NASA scientist, recently posted this column noting that maintenance costs on his Model 3 were higher than expected.
Hasler said that driving 90,000 miles required that he replace his tires three times. EV tires wear out faster because the vehicles weigh considerably more than gas engine vehicles. The average ICE tire on the market is designed to last about 60,000 miles, according to the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association.
The environmental hazards of tires have only recently become understood, but studies have shown the faster they wear out, the more harm they do to freshwater ecosystems, plant and animal life. Tire particle emissions increase with speed, causing more environmental hazards.
As noted by this Eco Green website, tires do not decompose. “When tires pile up in landfills or junkyards, they can release chemicals into the air, ground, and water that alter the ecosystem. Just sitting in the sun, a waste tire releases methane gas into the air. This greenhouse gas increases our carbon footprint and can contribute to climate change.”
In championing electric vehicles, Musk never incorporated a solution for how to recycle Tesla batteries. The person developing solutions is JB Straubel, Tesla’s former CTO, who is often credited with inventing key pieces of Tesla’s battery technology and the brains behind the company’s charging network. After leaving Tesla in 2019, Straubel began a new venture: Redwood Materials, a battery recycling company.
“This entire new sustainable economy as we’re envisioning it, with everything electrified, simply can’t work unless you have a closed loop for the raw materials. There aren’t enough new raw materials to keep building and throwing them away; it would fundamentally be impossible,” Straubel told the MIT Technology Review.
I’m not looking to debate the climate merits of electric vehicles. It seems apparent there are hurdles that need to be addressed. One of those hurdles is Elon Musk.
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