I got a better idea of Elon Musk’s personality when I read some articles on Waitbutwhy and his biography by Ashlee Vance a few years ago. A visionary, idealist, passionate and hard-working, he fascinates millions of people. Unless you live in a cave, it’s hard not to know who Elon Musk is.
We could say that Elon Musk is a genius. This word is perhaps too often used, but on rereading the definition, I find it quite appropriate: ‘a person who stands out in an exceptional way from his contemporaries by an outstanding talent and/or a remarkable intellectual ability‘. Of course, genius does not mean ‘a person with irreproachable morals and actions‘. That would be too easy.
While the press is abuzz about who is the richest man on the planet – Musk or Bezos – let’s focus a bit on the impact that Elon Musk and his activities have on the environment and the climate. Is the man who wants to ‘help humanity emit less CO2and make better use of the sun’s energy‘ a solution, or a nightmare for the environment and the climate?
Politics and ideology
Let’s start with a quick detour to understand Elon Musk’s way of thinking. He has been immersed in technology all his life, founding his first company (Zip2) at the age of 24 and was one of the main actors in the success of PayPal in the early 2000s (which, once acquired by Ebay, provided him with a handsome $180M fortune). Technological innovation is his thing. He has never really accepted being told ‘this is impossible’: there is probably a possible innovation for any problem. This is true for transportation (hyperloop), for space (Space X), but also for “curing autism and schizophrenia” (Neuralink).
Beyond being a techno-enthusiast, Elon Musk is an ecomodernist: humans can protect nature by using technology to decouple anthropogenic impacts from the natural world. CO2 problem? Easy: build nuclear power plants, invest massively in CO2 capture technologies. You think it’s a caricature? I invite you to follow any of the signatories of the eco-modernist manifesto, starting with Michael Shellenberger, our famous “IPCC expert”.
What about politics?
Rare are the billionaires who are politically and publicly active. When you’re that rich, it’s best to be friends with everyone and not close any doors… to business. This is Elon Musk’s strategy. He calls himself an ‘openly socialist’ and ‘independent’. Independent and neutral, while being a donor to all major American political parties. You can imagine that when you do business with NASA, with the American government, and you are going to compete with all the American car manufacturers, it is better to have allies everywhere.
His opinion on capitalism? “That’s a great system“. It would be enough to put a ‘fair‘ carbon tax, based on income. It’s crazy, nobody thought of that! I honestly wonder why this hasn’t been in place for 20 years, why the ton is at a ridiculous price, and who is blocking this… As a reminder:
We must therefore, and I quote, “trust the market because the State has so far failed to play its role“. You are totally right Elon: after 15 years in the financial markets, I would say just like you: trust the market. Tesla, which has gone up 10 times on the stock market in one year without making a single dollar of profit from the sale of its cars, immediately gives confidence. We will come back to this.
Elon Musk and climate change
Millions of Americans are climate deniers. Some people think that it is a natural phenomenon and that man has nothing to do with it, others think that it is a Chinese trick. Given that the United States is an oil producing country, that it is historically the most CO2 emitting country and that it has just experienced 4 years of D. Trump’s presidency, this is not surprising.
Let’s be clear: Elon Musk is not a climate denier. In fact, the opposite is true. He believes that climate change is one of the two biggest threats to humanity, along with artificial intelligence. Here’s what he said to Joe Rogan’s microphone, on the verge of tears:
«We are really playing a crazy game with the atmosphere and the oceans. We’re taking huge amounts of carbon from deep underground and […] putting it into the atmosphere, it’s crazy. We should not do this. This is very dangerous. We should accelerate the transition to sustainable energy. I mean, the strange thing is that we’re obviously going to run out of oil in the long run. There is only so much oil we can extract and burn.
That’s why we need to have a long-term sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure. So we know that this is the end point, we know that. So why do this crazy experiment where we take trillions of tons of carbon out of the ground and put it into the atmosphere and the oceans. This is a crazy experience. This is the stupidest experiment in human history. Why are we doing this? It’s crazy.»
Heavily criticized when he joined Trump’s Economic Council, he ended up leaving it when Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement. On the observation, we can say without hesitation that Elon Musk is aware of the climate challenge. But what about its solutions?
Tesla and clean cars
Decarbonizing transportation is one of the major challenges of the next 30 years. We are still talking about 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Without a drastic reduction, we have no chance of achieving carbon neutrality.
This is a major challenge on a global scale and even more so for rich Western countries such as France, where transport emissions account for 29%. This issue is also a business opportunity, and Elon Musk understood this in 2004 when he invested in Tesla. Although he is not the founder, he is the one who made Tesla what it is today: a company that everyone talks about and whose stock price has increased by 10 times in 2020.
Electric cars and climate
When you talk about climate issues, the subject of electric cars is unavoidable. Before further analysis later in the year, here is an outline of what you need to know about the subject:
- Electric cars pollute considerably less in Europe over their lifetime than conventional vehicles.
- In countries where the electric fleet is not decarbonized, like China (coal), the interest of the electric car is very low, the emissions are then almost similar to a hybrid vehicle.
- Comparisons between electric and conventional vehicles are complex. This depends on the size of the vehicle, the accuracy of fuel consumption estimates, the way electricity emissions are calculated, driving habits, weather conditions, etc. There is no single accounting model that applies everywhere.
Taking these elements into account, we can quickly conclude two things: in Europe (and particularly in France), the electric car is the best choice. In China and the United States, however, the conclusion will be much less clear. Indeed, both countries have an electricity mix that relies heavily on fossil fuels (in 2019, 69% for China, 61% for the US):
Elon Musk’s ‘clean car’ promise is slowly starting to crumble.
It is not uncommon to hear that electric car = clean car. I heard it with my own ears a good fifty times from French people, but also and especially from Americans. Elon Musk is above all a marketing genius: he sells cars and Tesla owners can look you in the eye and say “I’m saving the environment, I have a Tesla“. It’s real, don’t laugh.
In the minds of these people, Teslas grow like trees: just plant a seed and you have a Tesla S. And no John-Kevin: no car is clean. No car is ecological, even if it is electric. An electric car also emits more greenhouse gases during its construction because batteries have to be produced. Finally, we come to the heart of the problem: extractivism. Having increased extractivism on the planet by 80% in 30 years (source: Extractivism, Industrial Exploitation Of Nature by Anna Bednik) has not been enough: we will redouble our efforts with electric cars. If Emmanuel Hache was surprised by “the absence of Bolivia in the mining landscape“, when we know that the Uyuni salt flats constitute the largest lithium resources in the world, I would like to reassure him: Elon Musk is aware of this.
On top of that, let’s not forget the many Tesla factories located all over the world, often with an extremely carbon-intensive electricity mix. In the words of Elon Musk, these are “very green factories“. Indeed, looking closely, it looks very green :
PS2: Did you know? Over the last 5 quarters, Tesla has not made a single dollar of profit by selling cars, but only by selling carbon credits. Isn’t green finance great?
Elon Musk and the conquest of the stars
If you want to understand Elon Musk, you should definitely listen to him talk about space. While preparing this article, I had to re-listen to several passages of interviews, as I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
First, Starlink: a satellite Internet access project proposed by the American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, based on the deployment of a constellation of several thousand telecommunications satellites. With this, ‘customers will be able to watch movies in high definition, play video games and do whatever they want‘. In the same video, he says ‘my customers can do whatever they want, as I do what I want‘.
This brings us to the first fundamental problem: Elon Musk does what he wants and wants everyone else to do the same. He only sees the advantages of his approach, without ever asking himself about the consequences. It is certain that the aerospace industry has played a fundamental role in the study of climate, thanks to the weather satellites placed in orbit. The problem is that Elon Musk wants to multiply the number of satellites by 20, which will directly disrupt space operations and astronomical research. But you understand, it’s important that John-Alfred can make his Tik Tok video in the middle of the Texan desert in high definition. We do what we want, God bless America.
All of this was of course supported first by the Obama and then the Trump administration, and will not stop under Biden. You have to understand, “America is back“. Space, previously a common heritage of mankind, will just become another playground for another trade war, with his buddy Jeff Bezos (Kuiper) and the Chinese of Hongyan.
The great thing about Elon is that he has a solution for everything. “It is likely that the Earth will become unlivable. But I have a solution to that: we’re going to go colonize Mars.”. Thus, one of its goals is to send 1 million people to Mars by 2050. The bad tongues will ask “and what about the other 7.7 billion people?”, but that’s not really his problem.
Again, this is a hobby he shares with Jeff Bezos, who believes that the Moon and asteroids are inexhaustible deposits of resources. Here we come to a second fundamental problem: again, extractivism. It’s a logical continuation after all. After having exploited all that was possible on Earth, we must go and do it elsewhere. Let’s quote good old Jeff again: “The Earth is a finite world, and if the world’s economy and population are to continue to expand, space is the only solution. Look, if this is the only solution…
A triple criticism
For more than 60 years, the conquest of space has been admired, desired and criticized at the same time. I would address here a triple criticism to Elon Musk’s desires to invade space and colonize other planets.
First, a material criticism. As explained, in order to sustain growth, we must continue to extract raw materials and if we run out of them, the only solution is to go and find them in space. I do not wish to waste any more time demonstrating the absurdity of the idea, which in addition to being ridiculous, is technically unfeasible on a large scale in the decades to come.
Second, a moral critique. To want to give the possibility to one million humans to go to Mars is to forget 99.99%+ of the rest of the world population. Always this idea of billionaires who do not know what to do with their money (we will come back to this) and who invest in crazy projects.
Third, an ideological, even philosophical critique. The refusal to live within limits and to want more and more of everything is the translation of our current economy: neo-liberal, market-driven (which of course is always fair and transparent and solves all ills). Elon Musk is like his counterpart Jeff Bezos: limits are made to be transgressed, and for that, there is always a technological solution? like carbon capture?
100 million for the best carbon capture technology?
Among the 12 discourses of climate delay, the 6th is technological optimism. In other words, don’t change anything, technology will save us. This is how Elon Musk operates. Well, it depends on the month. In this video from September 2018, at 2.20, he says “it’s very difficult to put CO2 back in the ground‘. When the interviewer asks him “but with some kind of giant filter that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere“? Elon Musk’s answer: ” AHAHAH “… Not possible“.
You can imagine my reaction when I see all the press flaming for 3 weeks “Musk offers 100M for the CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal), it will save us! Yes, Elon musk did offer $100 million to Xprize, as promised:
So I’ll reiterate what the scientists say: no matter how much CO₂ is ‘captured’ by Elon Musk and his projects, no matter what, it is essential to rapidly lower our CO₂ emissions (for a target temperature level).
In the graph above, adding CDR (green) will only ‘slightly’ lower fossil emissions. Even if we were able to capture 5GtCO₂/year in 2050 through CDR, that would still mean we would have to lower our global emissions by about 40GtCO₂… in 30 years. Also, carbon capture is important and will be mandatory to reach our goals, but the priority is to LOWER our emissions.
Many comments, of course, said that if he really wanted to absorb CO2, he should plant trees. Indeed, one of the best ways to capture and store atmospheric carbon over the long term is through forests. However, beware of treewashing via carbon offsetting! I see you coming, Chief Tree Planter Officers on Linkedin.
Elon Musk and Bitcoin
It’s impossible to talk about Elon Musk without talking about Bitcoin. Not a week goes by without him speaking out about cryptocurrencies, waltzing the value of each of them with tweets. Yes, at 48 million followers on Twitter, all it takes is one tweet to make the financial markets go wild. Flattering Bitcoin fans is a pretty good idea: show interest in the currency, plan to allow the purchase of a Tesla in Bitcoin, and pocket the cash. Simple no?
Of course, after reading this article, you will have understood that Elon Musk is anything but innocent. It’s not the main focus of the article, but it’s one hell of a stock market animal. Already convicted in 2018 for manipulating prices with tweets, here’s what he posted in December 2020:
Then, 30 minutes later:
Wait, isn’t that Tesla buying 1.5 billion Bitcoins in January 2021? This is what we call a very nice market manipulation: make the price of a stock go down, buy it back at a much lower price and tweet about Bitcoin since then saying that it is not so bad after all. I don’t know how this guy hasn’t gone to jail yet and who he knows at the SEC, but he definitely has some well placed friends.
Let’s also remember that Bitcoin is anything but neutral, whether in terms of energy, social or environmental issues. A majority of the mining is done in China, with cheap electricity… produced with coal. The GREEN file is getting heavier…
Can a billionaire be an ecologist/sustainable ?
There are several methodologies for calculating your carbon footprint, and the one that is often overlooked is the money in your bank account. Yes, your money has a carbon footprint, and the more your bank invests in fossil industries, the more your carbon footprint explodes. The answer to the question ‘Can a billionaire be green?’ is obviously no.
The carbon footprint of billionaires can be up to several thousand times larger than the average American’s carbon footprint. Knowing that this last one is of basis to approximately 16t CO2eq, useless to specify to which point these people are out of ground.
Elon Musk is almost an exception among these billionaires: he doesn’t have a super yacht, he’s not the type to go on vacation on a jet-ski or to collect big cars for his personal collection. His thing is to work. We can’t take that away from him. Despite this, he still owns several houses, a private jet, etc. This results in a carbon footprint estimated at a little over 2000 tons CO2eq. About 1000 times what it would take.
The subject of philanthropy has already been brilliantly addressed by Vincent Edin in his book Quand la charité se fout de l’hôpital (When Charity Doesn’t Care About the Hospital), but I would like to insist on one last point: in what world is a billionaire complaining about not knowing what to do with his money?
Since I’m a Good Guy, I’ll help you Elon. You can :
- Give to the millions of Americans entering the workforce who will take at least 15 years to pay off their student debt.
- Give to the millions of Americans who don’t have a health care system and don’t go to the hospital because it costs too much.
- Give to the millions of Americans who are still working in their 70s because they don’t have a pension.
- Give to a blogger, called ‘Good buddy’, who would take 0.0001% of your fortune to be able to live from his writing until the end of the world in 2027 (source: Yves Cochet).
Elon Musk: the verdict
If you still had any doubts, Elon Musk is much more of a nightmare than a solution for the environment. Of course, not everything can be thrown away. He deserves credit for bringing the electric car to the forefront and putting pressure on 20th century manufacturers like Ford and General Motors. It’s also a good thing that he talks about the environment, as this subject is rarely mentioned in the media (and when it is, it’s often not very good).
However, let’s not be fooled. In his eyes, the environment is above all a business opportunity, just like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, for whom this article could also have applied. Worse, it’s mostly business as usual: don’t change anything, technology will save us, long live growth, long live CO2 absorption, long live green growth with Biden’s Green New Deal!
Let’s stop relying on billionaires to save us. While they are just an indicator of everything that is wrong with our economic and social system (which over time leads to ecological disaster), salvation will surely not come from them.