Elon Musk: CO2 saint or sinner? | FT Film
The electric car revolutionary has built a reputation as a clean energy champion. But SpaceX has never fitted in with Musk's green image. Now the tech billionaire is driving the energy-hungry crypto market. FT writers and experts weigh his climate record, both good and bad, and ask whether his green status stacks up
Produced, filmed and edited by James Sandy; additional filming by Petros Gioumpasis, Gregory Bobillot and Joe Smith; graphics by Russell Birkett, colour grading by Dan Carney; promotional image by Kari-Ruth Pederson
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LESLIE HOOK: Overall, would I say that Elon Musk is good for the environment?
KATIE MARTIN: On balance-- [LAUGHS]-- I just don't know.
JAMIE POWELL: I have no idea.
BILLY NAUMAN: What he has done to popularise the electric car, you can't take that away from him. And that's massive.
LESLIE HOOK: At the same time, you can't ignore the fact that Elon Musk has done a lot to make clean energy sexy and exciting.
TARA SHIRVANI: But on the other side, it is very clear that he's making sketchy and difficult trade-offs when it comes to the recent investments that he has made.
PEGGY HOLLINGER: You love the idea that so many more people can access space. You hate the idea that so many more people can access space.
BILLY NAUMAN: He's also fighting for carbon capture and storage. He's also building this renewable energy infrastructure.
KATIE MARTIN: That's always the problem with Musk-- is balancing out the good and the not so good because of all these different things that he does.
BILLY NAUMAN: If we're talking about his biggest contribution to the environment, the disruption of the auto industry and the popularisation of the electric car has to be the number one. Tailpipe emissions represent a large part of the carbon emissions that are warming the Earth faster than we need it to be warming. So the fact that he has made the electric car viable and popular means a lot.
JAMIE POWELL: We had electric cars before Tesla, and they were never popular. They were always little bugs that you'd see pottering around the street. And they went 100 miles. And it was an undesirable object.
ELON MUSK: Something that doesn't look good, isn't fast-- it doesn't have a high performance. It has low range. We wanted to break the mould of all of that. High acceleration, incredible handling, tonnes of capability, lots of room, and better than any gasoline car. That's what we sought to achieve.
JAMIE POWELL: That has had a profound shift on how people think about the space, and it's impossible to discount. At what cost is another question.
BILLY NAUMAN: If you look at some of the suppliers that Tesla uses for the materials needed for its batteries-- nickel and cobalt and the mining operations there-- there are massive environmental concerns. Elon Musk has addressed them himself, saying he will give a huge contract to whatever miner can mine nickel more sustainably or in a more environmentally-friendly way.
PETER WELLS: The vehicles themselves are very large. They require all of those exotic materials in the battery packs and so forth. Plus, they're not all that efficient. I mean, the typical Tesla S could be 2,200 kilos. That's a lot of car. That means that most of the battery is being spent moving the battery. It's an electrified traditional muscle car. That's not a great deal of progress for me.
JAMIE POWELL: Look, there's a good argument to be made that everyone should be driving less cars, full stop. And really, if you wanted to change the environmental structure of America, lobbying for high-speed rail would be a pretty good way to start that, not building high-end electric cars for rich Californians.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: It may begin with a fancy sports car, but that's not where the story ends. These new technologies, they always start off expensive. But where we win, where we really move the needle, is by making it something accessible and desirable for everyday people. And that's what Elon Musk has done for the world.
RICHARD WATERS: He started right at the top of the market. And then he [INAUDIBLE] the technology down into the mainstream. And he said, look, all that technology, all that style-- now you can get it too. And I've managed to get the price down to $35,000, $40,000.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: He opens the door to people's imagination of what it'll be like to have a completely fossil-fuel-free society. It'll be better than what we have today.
ELON MUSK: This is a future you can feel really excited and optimistic about. I think it really matters.
BILLY NAUMAN: That's why Tesla is valued at what it's valued. It's not worth more than Toyota because it sells more cars than Toyota. It's worth more than Toyota because investors have determined, in their heads, that he is going to revolutionise the world. And they think, he's going to let us keep doing what we want to do all the time. We don't need to worry about it because Elon's got it.
LESLIE HOOK: That's a really compelling idea. Technology will save us. It will arrive in the future and make our problems go away. But critics would argue that it's not really realistic, just getting there painlessly.
PETER WELLS: We have to really think very hard about how we want to live our lives and really kind of rein back on that high-consumption lifestyle. All the evidence points to this.
LESLIE HOOK: Whether that means flying less, eating less meat, driving your personal car less-- you name it-- individuals will need to change their behaviour. There's not just some magic silver bullet that will arrive and make all of these problems disappear.
BILLY NAUMAN: So in January, Elon Musk announced the XPRIZE for carbon capture. They're going to offer $100 million to whoever wins this. And the goal is to try to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The technology that exists right now is expensive. No one has cracked the code to developing carbon capture technology that works at scale at a price where it would be feasible to really play a big part in the fight against climate change.
LESLIE HOOK: So the prize says, we'll select 15 teams. Each of the 15 teams gets $1 million to try and figure something out. And then at the end of the process, in five years, the winner gets 50 million. There's runners-up, et cetera.
ANOUSHEH ANSARI: It's the largest private incentivized competition ever launched. And the level of interest is very high, and it has created a whole new buzz in the climate tech industry. Frankly, with the goal that, by 2050, we have to be able to remove 10 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, and nothing indicated that the industry will be able to achieve that without the nudge. And the XPRIZE carbon competition is that nudge. All we want to see is show us how you do it, and we'll show you the money.
TARA SHIRVANI: But it is also a way of taking away part of the responsibility from ourselves, knowing that there is money pumped into large-scale technologies that, potentially, will save us from disaster.
BILLY NAUMAN: We have to cut emissions. And all of these big-picture, sort of sci-fi initiatives, they get a lot of blowback from the climate science community.
ANOUSHEH ANSARI: Some people have even told me what we're doing is slowing down progress of those in the streets to make a change. But I always say when your house is on fire, you can just sit there and watch it burn down with the hopes that someone will come out and put out the fires. We've been waiting for that to happen for too long. And if we don't make this move now, it will be too late.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: We need to consume less, first and foremost. That's absolutely a truth. But climate change is too overwhelming of a problem. We have to give average, everyday people a sense of the possible.
BILLY NAUMAN: It's frightening. And people want to believe that there is a Technoking, as he has deemed himself-- saviour-- that's going to come in and keep us all from suffering as we will under global warming.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Save us, Elon!
ELON MUSK: [LAUGHS]
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: What's really important for people to understand is that humans are going to still need to move themselves and their products around with technology, and so we need electricity.
ELON MUSK: We're in a vertical climb on CO2 levels. And we need to do everything we possibly can to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: Elon Musk's greatest contribution is in showing what's possible to generate that electricity without fossil fuels.
LESLIE HOOK: Tesla also owned SolarCity, which is one of the biggest residential solar panel owners in the US. And Tesla also has a sizable battery business, of course. And energy storage is the main bottleneck in making the transition to a fully renewable energy system.
BILLY NAUMAN: If we're going to switch to renewables, we need a way to use wind and solar power when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing. And to do that, you need some way to store that energy.
LESLIE HOOK: Some of the current projects are using, basically, the car batteries at a very large scale.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: We are literally shutting down dirty, old fossil fuel power plants and replacing them with solar energy paired with energy storage. So the Moss Landing project in California is one of the most picturesque examples. The energy storage is also modular, and it can fit into small nooks and crannies of our built environment. So it can fit behind the metre at customer sites whether that's a hospital or a home or a school. And locating energy at the point where people use it helps us get to that clean energy future we want to get to.
ELON MUSK: It consists of a really appealing solar roof. Then combine that with storage and with electric cars. So it's a pretty-- it's a obvious three-part solution. Yeah. Three-part solution.
PETER WELLS: This is an interesting vision. I've even looked at it from my own house. I've got an electric car. I'm thinking-- going to put my panels up on the roof. In an ideal world, I would have domestic battery storage so that when the sun wasn't shining, I could charge my car for my own electricity.
LESLIE HOOK: Over time, there's been a real trend, especially in the American West, of making that happen through putting batteries inside people's homes.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO: And those batteries, when added together already, today, actually outshine what we're doing at the utility scale level. We have approximately 50,000 batteries that are connected to our energy grid here in California. They total somewhere around a gigawatt of energy capacity, so the market and the business community has been around for a very long time. What I think Elon Musk did is he communicated directly to the masses in ways that other businesses hadn't yet been able to do.
RICHARD WATERS: He's worked this groove between the products we design, like electric cars. But on the other hand, the vision, the we can solve big problems kind of idea. And he is one of the only-- just about the only person-- He's managing to work that groove right now.
ELON MUSK: I believe in a renewable energy future. I believe that humanity must become a multiplanetary, space-faring civilization. Those seem like exciting goals, don't they?
[AUDIENCE CHEERS AND CLAPS]
BILLY NAUMAN: It's like he's a K-pop band. It's crazy. And he's able to use that in many ways. He can move markets with a single tweet whether it's something he says about Tesla, whether it's something he says about Bitcoin, whether it's something he says about Dogecoin.
KATIE MARTIN: Elon Musk is, effectively, the governor of the central bank of crypto. His whims are exactly the sorts of announcements that you need to be looking at to determine what Bitcoin is going to do next, which is kind of fine if you think you have a good sense of what Elon Musk is going to do next. But I'm not convinced that anyone does, to be honest.
HANNAH MURPHY: In early February, Tesla announced that it would invest $1.5 billion into Bitcoin. That's about 11% of the company's cash.
RICHARD WATERS: Yet three months later, he reversed course. And in a single tweet, he said, we're not going to buy anymore Bitcoin. We're not going to sell Bitcoin, either, because we decided that this is bad for the climate. I've decided it's bad for the climate. Which, of course, everybody already knew.
TARA SHIRVANI: With 70% of global Bitcoin production being positioned in China, where the grid is very much relying on dirty coal, the production of bitcoins, in itself, produces as much CO2 as a small country.
HANNAH MURPHY: And compare it, for example to Visa. Each Bitcoin transaction uses the same amount of power as 436,000 Visa transactions. So it's hardly environmentally friendly.
KATIE MARTIN: Since this announcement in February that Tesla was loading up on Bitcoin, the shares have fallen about 20%. And, in part, that's because, for lots of investors that I speak to, this Bitcoin moment was a bridge too far.
TARA SHIRVANI: Ultimately, when you're buying $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin, you're not really concerned with the environmental footprint that goes with it because the numbers are just so stark. You're much more looking at profit.
RICHARD WATERS: People suspect maybe that's what he's in it for. Is he just talking prices up and down? Is this just one big market manipulation? On the other hand, of course, you can imagine him thinking, well, this is part of the long-term future I'm building.
HANNAH MURPHY: More efficient, scalable, fast-working decentralised transactions.
RICHARD WATERS: The idea that money could simply be turned into bits on computers-- and on anybody's computer-- not some central bank's computer, but our computers-- that it's a completely decentralised thing that's a bit of shared code between anybody who wants to use it is an incredibly revolutionary and liberating idea for someone like Musk.
HANNAH MURPHY: So it might just be about speculation and making a lot of money but it could also be an indication that that is how he sees the world moving.
RICHARD WATERS: And not just this world. He really does believe that humans will be on Mars. And when they get there, they certainly won't be taking their earthbound currencies with them. They won't be taking any of the institutions with them.
SPEAKER: 3, 2, 1. Ignition. We got liftoff.
[ROCKET LIFTING OFF]
ELON MUSK: I think it's important for the long-term preservation and, ultimately, the expansion and extension of the scope and scale of consciousness and the long-term probability of survival of humanity and life as we know it. We must become a multiplanet species.
LESLIE HOOK: One of the most curious things about Elon Musk's vision for the future is that he really believes humans will come to colonise space.
BILLY NAUMAN: It may be that he is more interested in the sustainability of humankind than the sustainability of the Earth, which is why he's creating this lifeboat. But I think an easier way to sustain human life is to sustain the planet we are on.
TARA SHIRVANI: Executing plan B will compromise plan A because, already, the footprint is not going to be environmentally friendly.
KATIE MARTIN: If you look at, for example, the rockets, how great is that for the actually quite fragile coastal regions where these rockets take off from and, not infrequently, explode?
LESLIE HOOK: The challenge is that rockets burn a lot of fuel, emitting CO2 and lots of other things high into the atmosphere. And that's a problem.
[ROCKET LIFTING OFF]
DARIN TOOHEY: When you see these things take off, you often see a grey or a white plume in the lower atmosphere. That's because it collects water, typically, so it's quieter. But then there's this middle region where it's fairly dry. And there's not a lot of oxygen, of course, up high. And then that's where you'd probably get a lot of unburned things, or you deal with the formation of sooty things, which we call black carbon.
PEGGY HOLLINGER: The soot particles can collect and accumulate in the stratosphere. And there are a lot of questions about, as they absorb the sunlight, then to what extent do they contribute to warming?
DARIN TOOHEY: This minor player, this 1% or 2%, is 100,000 to 1 million times more absorptive to solar energy than the carbon dioxide itself. And we can't tell you what the impact is.
PEGGY HOLLINGER: They're only beginning to do the studies, partly because we don't launch that many rockets every year. I mean, there's a lot, and they're growing fast. But, ultimately, compared to a lot of other sectors, the sector is relatively small in terms of actual carbon emissions.
RICHARD WATERS: But what we're living through is the opening of a space. And it's very hard to exaggerate the impact of SpaceX in creating what we think of today as the commercial space industry. Lower cost means more launches.
PEGGY HOLLINGER: Between 2010 and 2019, there were, on average, about 260 satellites launched a year. Well, on average, over the next decade, Euroconsult expects us to see about 1,250 satellites launched a year. People haven't really thought about the impact of all of these rocket launches to get the satellites up into orbit. Or, indeed, about the reentry of the dead satellites. As they come to the end of their life, they fall back into the Earth's atmosphere and burn up.
RICHARD WATERS: This isn't too dissimilar from the way we've treated our own planet. Let's do something that's convenient, and then we'll think about cleaning it up later.
LESLIE HOOK: That kind of premise is the idea that's actually driven a lot of natural destruction and a lot of environmental degradation throughout history.
DARIN TOOHEY: The last thing I want to see is for people to be scared that environmental analysis of rockets is going to somehow shut down commercial rocketry. I mean, that has its own negative effects.
ANOUSHEH ANSARI: When you look at space technology, I think people just think, we have so much problem here on Earth. Why are we even doing anything in space? What they forget is so many technologies around us is because of the fact that we wanted to explore space.
DARIN TOOHEY: What we've accomplished as humans in my lifetime is unbelievable. I've been at Cape Canaveral watching a space shuttle take off. This is hope, and this is beauty. And our job here isn't to stop things from happening. Our job is to make it better.
PEGGY HOLLINGER: There's a lot we don't know. But also, this new space rush that we have now is hugely beneficial to us in terms of tracking the impact on the climate of carbon emissions, of deforestation, of lots of things that are going on the planet that we had no idea were happening before.
RICHARD WATERS: So this is exactly the type of issue that is going to drive a wedge between Musk's friends and enemies if you like.
ELON MUSK: Hi, everyone.
BILLY NAUMAN: He, certainly, if nothing else, has faith in innovation. He embodies the Silicon Valley mindset that we can disrupt our way to a better future.
TARA SHIRVANI: For them, it's a silver bullet towards everything-- is finding a technology solution, which, in itself, at the end, is only part of it.
PEGGY HOLLINGER: With new technology, there's always a kind of love/hate relationship. We can't escape the fact that Musk is a very divisive character. But if you don't have creative destruction, you never move forward.
ELON MUSK: There's a lot of problems in the world. But if we don't have things that inspire us, what's the point of living?
ANOUSHEH ANSARI: Doesn't just invent things for the sake of disruption. It has a purpose. And this purpose has been to create a more sustainable lifespan for humanity.
LESLIE HOOK: If you're talking about taking emissions to nearly zero, you need wealthy billionaires and millionaires to splurge on fancy electric vehicles, just like you need federal governments to spend on better infrastructure for public transportation. It's all useful. And I think that probably outweighs some of his more questionable environmental choices. At least for now.