These days, Tesla has a lot of problems, but sometimes it does great things. In 2008, it launched the Tesla Roadster—the first mass-produced lithium-ion battery car. Unlike previous electric cars, the Roadster was fast, sexy and luxurious. Since its launch, more than 12 million electric cars have been sold worldwide, with Tesla contributing over 1 million to that number.
But what if Tesla never existed or never ignited the electric car revolution – would we have millions of electric cars on the road today? Of course, the electric car revolution would have happened eventually. But just two years before the Roadster’s release, the death of the electric car was being mourned in the infamous documentary. Who killed the electric car? If the big automakers really killed the electric car, as the documentary suggests, then Tesla certainly revived it.
This is great news for the future inhabitants of Earth. Taking action to reduce the damage of climate change, for example by buying an electric car, is an urgent matter. Just last year, a study by Nature Communications estimated that “the addition of 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020—equivalent to the lifetime emissions of 3.5 average Americans—causes an expected excess death globally between 2020-2100.”
That is, carbon emitted now causes deaths later — 83 million, according to the study’s baseline projections. Thus, the spread of electric cars today saves lives tomorrow. But how much?
To find out, I looked at Tesla’s most recent impact report. According to that report, the average amount of emissions over the lifetime of the combustion car is 450 g of CO2e/mile, or 68 metric tons total over a lifetime of 150,000 miles (241,401 km). By contrast, the Model 3’s total emissions are 180g CO2e/mile when charging to the grid in America, which equates to a lifetime emissions amount of 27 metric tons of carbon. For every person who gives up gas to drive an electric car, we get a lifetime carbon savings of about 40 metric tons. (The savings are even higher if you charge your car with solar panels.) So to understand how many lives electric cars have saved, we need to estimate how many electric vehicles were purchased instead of gas cars.
To date, Tesla has sold nearly 2 million cars. That translates into a savings of 80 million metric tons of carbon, assuming most of those people would have bought another gas-powered car if the electric car revolution was delayed. Given that every 4,000 metric tons of carbon emitted is expected to cause one additional death (according to the study cited above), that adds up to about 20,000 lives saved.
That’s a lot, but I’ve only included Tesla cars; if we include the 10 million electric cars sold by other manufacturers, the lives saved go to 120,000.
To be clear, this is a rough estimate and simplifying assumptions have been made. But that’s likely an understatement. That’s because the Nature Communications study only counts deaths from overheating (eg, heat stroke). But climate change will kill in other ways too. It will suffocate people, starve them to death and infect them with new diseases. Considering these deaths, the spread of electric vehicles will save even more lives.
We have still only considered mortality. But most of the damage caused by climate change doesn’t come from killing people. It is from the destruction of their property and the deterioration of their lives. If we consider this as well, it seems that electric cars have indeed prevented a lot of damage.