Is it more environmentally friendly to drive a used car or a Tesla? The answer might surprise you.

Is It More Environmentally Friendly To Drive A Used Car Or A Tesla? The Answer Might Surprise You.

Depending on what assumptions are made and who you ask, a Tesla ranges from ‘as green as you can get’ to ‘dirtier than an SUV’. One of the biggest factors in deciding how green Tesla’s are though, is where you live.

So just how green are Tesla’s in Australia? How do they compare to driving a new or used vehicle?

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Is it more environmentally friendly to drive a used car or a Tesla? The answer might surprise you. - Gumtree’s most popular used cars vs. Tesla

Is it more environmentally friendly to drive a used car or a Tesla?

First, let’s take a look at how green typical combustion engine cars are (both new and used) before we compare them to Teslas. Driving a used car can be more environmentally friendly than driving a new car. Though of course, this depends on the car itself. A study by Toyota found that 28 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during the lifecycle of a typical petrol powered car occurs during manufacture and transportation to the dealer. Given this, a used car has already passed its manufacture and transport stage so going forward, we should only compare the remaining 72 per cent of CO2 emissions.

In a public debate with UNSW’s Gail Broadbent, Craig Kelly, a Government backbencher who sits on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, argued that a Toyota Corolla is more environmentally friendly than a Tesla.

“Look at the [Green Vehicle Guide] website. A Tesla has a (sic) carbon dioxide emissions when charged the average of the Australian grid – that’s higher in Victoria, that’s higher in Sydney – of close to 200 grams per kilometre travelled. A Toyota Corolla on the same government website shows only 171 grams of CO2. So, the Toyota Corolla is significantly less than the Tesla and that doesn’t include the manufacturing emissions.”

Going back to the first line of this article “depending on what assumptions are made and who you ask,” this brings us back to the question “is it more environmentally friendly to drive a used car or a Tesla?” Well that remains to be seen. Mr Kelly is cherry-picking his data. If we compare a Toyota Corolla to that of a Tesla, without taking into consideration any manufacturing implications on the environment, we can see that 17 models of Tesla had higher emissions than the least polluting petrol Corolla, while 10 had lower emissions than the least polluting Corolla. That being said, Mr Kelly does have a point as not all Tesla models are cleaner than Corollas. However, this is a comparison of apples and oranges as they are not equivalent like-for-like models of car. The ABC Fact Check website, pointed to a fairer comparison, of a Corolla and a small electric car such as the Renault Zoe, which emits less CO2 than any Corolla.

Mr Kelly stood by his claims in a piece for the Australian, stating “We need to be very careful that any subsidies or concessions we give to electric cars in Australia will not increase CO2 emissions rather than decrease them. The risk here is you’ll have the rich person in Balmain buying a Tesla, subsidised by a bloke in Penrith who’s driving a Corolla. And the Tesla will have more carbon emissions than the Corolla.”

In an opinion piece by Fairfax, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel addressed Mr Kelly’s concerns, using the latest figures for emissions from electricity generation. Finkel explained that the Tesla Model S has lower emissions than a Corolla sedan. “The 2017 Corolla petrol sedan has emissions of 178 grams per kilometre. The much larger Tesla Model S 75 RP has lower emissions, at 168 grams per kilometre, charged on the 2017 national electricity grid (910kg/MWh emissions). The comparison to the Corolla is even more favourable for the similar sized electric Renault Zoe, which emits just 121 grams per kilometre.”

Similar comparisons have been made in other countries. Bernstein Research analyst, Neil Beveridge stated that due to the high carbon intensity of electricity generation in Hong Kong, electric cars likely emit 20 per cent more CO2 over their lifecycle than equivalent petrol powered cars. Using a BMW 320i for his comparison, with a 2 litre engine it isn’t exactly comparable with the Tesla Model S, but is a direct competitor to the Tesla Model 3. He argued that “Taxpayers are being asked to pay for this, which is ironic given that EVs tend to be driven by those on higher income levels.” This is a timely issue in Hong Kong as Elon Musk described it as “probably the leading city in the world for electric cars”. While conventional cars are being taxed at 36 per cent of the sales price, electric cars go free.

In response to the Bernstein report, a spokesperson from Tesla stated:

“Driving an equivalent gas-powered car like the Mercedes S500 results in emissions of approximately 200g CO2/km. And because of oil extraction, distribution and refining, approximately 25% more has to be added on top of that to calculate the real carbon footprint of gas-powered cars. In Hong Kong, that means an electric car like the Model S has about half the CO2 per km that an equivalent gas-powered car has. Moreover, as the percentage of grid power from solar and wind continues to increase, the CO2 from electricity drops with each passing year and the gap widens even further.”

Furthermore, according to data from the Trancik Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Mitsubishi Mirage can be greener than a Tesla. Arguing that “Larger electric vehicles can have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than smaller conventional vehicles.”

However, Jessica Trancik, a professor of energy studies at MIT argued that all electric vehicles produce fewer emissions over their lifecycle than conventional cars of the same weight class, and this holds true even if the electricity grid that powers them is mostly generated by fossil fuels.

When comparing like-for-like car models, the numbers don’t stack up, with Tesla’s being more environmentally friendly than their gas guzzling counterparts. However, when comparing cars solely for the sake of being environmentally friendly, you might be better off driving a small, comparatively environmentally friendly used car, than a large electric vehicle, like a Tesla.

We spoke to Michael Lord, Head of Research at Beyond Zero Emissions:

“Electric vehicles are cheaper to run and maintain – typically less than half the cost of a conventional car. In the next five years electric vehicles will be as cheap to buy as an equivalent petrol car. At that point why would you buy a petrol car? Shifting all of Australia’s cars and buses to electric within a decade could be cost neutral … because the upfront cost of buying new electric vehicles would be offset by their lower running and maintenance costs. Several countries, including France and the UK, plan to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars. In Norway, which aims for all new cars to have zero emissions by 2025, more than half of new car sales are electric or hybrid.”

Australian’s seem to agree with Lord’s claims. According to Allianz Australia General Manager Domestic Motor Leanne Hendry:

“We’ve had more customer enquiries about insurance for electric vehicles in the first six months of this year, than we did for the whole of 2017.”

We also spoke with Kirsty Clinton a Spokesperson for RACQ, who stated:

“While we only insure a handful of fully electric vehicles, we have seen a rise in recent years of members taking out insurance cover for hybrid vehicles.”

Gumtree’s most popular used cars vs. Tesla

Based on the assumption that you’re simply looking to get from point A to B, as environmentally friendly as possible, we took a look at how the most environmentally friendly Tesla S, stacked up against our 20 most popular used car models. 50 of our most popular used vehicles outperformed Tesla when it comes to being environmentally friendly, according to the Australian Government’s Green Vehicle Guide (4 of our 20 most popular models were not included on the website). The most environmentally friendly Tesla S, according to the website, is the 2017 Tesla S 75RP with emissions of 168 grams per kilometre, charged on the 2017 national electricity grid (910 kg/MWh emissions).

Here are the highlights of the most popular Gumtree models (top 20 makes, based on number of replies), that are more environmentally friendly in Australia than the Tesla S 75RP:

Car Fuel Lifecycle CO2 (g/km)
2016 Toyota Corolla Hatch 97
2016 BMW 3 Series 330e Sedan 108
2017 Toyota Camry Ascent Sedan 111
2017 Toyota Camry Ascent Sport Sedan 111
2017 Toyota Camry SL Sedan 120
2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid 133
2015 BMW 320d Sedan 138
2018 Volkswagen Golf Hatch 146
2015 BMW 3 Series 318i Sedan 146
2018 Volkswagen Golf Wagon 149
2014 Mazda 3 Hatch 156
2016 Holden Astra Hatch 158
2014 Mazda 3 Sedan 162
2017 Holden Astra Sedan 163
2017 Holden Astra Wagon 165
2015 BMW 3 Series 320i Wagon 166
2015 BMW 3 Series 320i Sedan 167
2015 BMW 3 Series 330i Wagon 167


We spoke to Darryl Bourke, Tesla owner and TOCA committee member:

“Like all Electric Vehicles (EV), Tesla vehicles are environmentally friendly due to their lower maintenance requirements, higher efficiencies, zero exhaust emissions and reduction of greenhouse gasses as the Australian grid reduces its reliance on fossil fuels.  With Australia migrating to more renewable energy, EVs become more environmentally sound and also reduce our dependency on imported oil.

Comparing an existing Tesla Model S to a second hand Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) Vehicle means the environmental friendliness comparison should not include any production impacts as both vehicles exist.

ICE vehicles require frequent servicing of their approximate 2,000 moving parts resulting in production and subsequent disposal of replacement components (such as spark plugs and brake pads) and as well as engine oil, oil filters, fuel filters, gasket seals, radiator coolant, and workshop waste. Used vehicles are more likely to require even more maintenance and replacement of parts. They are also more likely to pollute more as mechanical tolerances wear.

Despite over 100 years of refinement, the ICE efficiency is limited mainly because of the heat it produces which requires an elaborate cooling system usually consisting of a chemical coolant taking heat to a vented radiator.

The power/torque of ICE varies dependent on the engines speed. EV can produce amazing power/torque right from zero engine speed. Something unachievable with an ICE, even with turbo and supercharging technologies.”

Is it more environmentally friendly to drive a used car or a Tesla? The answer might surprise you. - How Environmentally Friendly are Teslas in Australia

How environmentally friendly are Teslas in Australia?

To truly answer the question, we need to look at the entire lifecycle of a Tesla in Australia. First, looking at the Tesla manufacturing process and lifecycle of the car.

Manufacture and lifecycle

In a report by the Ricardo consultancy, it was estimated that the average electric car took 8.8 tonnes of CO2 to manufacture, while the average petrol car involved considerably less emissions to manufacture, at 5.6 tonnes. Almost half of the CO2 emissions in the manufacturing stage of a typical EV come from producing the battery. While electric vehicles are getting greener throughout their lifecycle, due to demand for increased battery life, many batteries are becoming larger for EVs, and thus the CO2 emitted in production are on the rise.

According to David Abraham, author of The Elements of Power, “We’re shifting pollution, and in the process we’re hoping that it doesn’t have the environmental impact.” Abraham writes that “In the Jiangxi rare earth mine in China, workers dig eight-foot holes and pour ammonium sulphate into them to dissolve the sandy clay. They haul out bags of muck and pass it through several acid baths; what’s left is baked in a kiln, leaving behind the rare earths required by everything from our phones to our Teslas. At this mine, those rare earths amounted to 0.2 percent of what gets pulled out of the ground. The other 99.8 percent – now contaminated with toxic chemicals – is dumped back into the environment. That damage is difficult to quantify, just like the impact of oil drilling.”

It’s important to note though that Tesla’s AC induction motors don’t use rare-earth magnets. However, rare earth magnets are not only used in battery production but also the solar panels often used for charging. Furthermore, Tesla’s current battery recycler in Europe, Umicore has stated that through their recycling, they are able to recover 70 per cent of the GHG emissions that were produced during the original material extraction and refining stages.

Udo Hartmann, head of environmental protection at Daimler has stated that “We will see a 30 per cent reduction of the CO2 footprint [of batteries by] the beginning of the next decade. And this reduction will continue.”

Besides the battery, the aluminium used to make the car also needs to be taken into consideration. Thanks to aluminium (a metal 40 per cent lighter than steel) Tesla is able to fit enough battery power into the Model S to extend its range, without hurting performance. Vehicles made from aluminium rather than steel, are able to accelerate faster, brake in shorter distances and handle better. But just how environmentally friendly are they?

Again, before we can make aluminium, bauxite needs to be mined, typically in open-pit mines. The bauxite is then processed into alumina, which is then exposed to intense heat and electricity which turns it into aluminium. Aluminium smelting is energy intense, taking 211 gigajoules of energy to make one tonne of aluminium. On the other hand, just 22.7 gigajoules of energy is required to produce one tonne of steel, used in combustion engine vehicles. So much energy is used in the smelting process that aluminium production alone is responsible for approximately 1 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Carbon Trust.

Today, material recovery rates for steel and aluminium in vehicles are at around 90 per cent. That being said, aluminium is 100 per cent recyclable and recycled aluminium takes far less energy to produce (approximately 5 per cent that of new materials). Tesla however, has not currently stated whether its aluminium is from primary or secondary (recycled) production so it is difficult to state just how environmentally friendly their production of the metal is.

We also need to factor in where the vehicles are being made. Most studies assume that the batteries are made in China and the vehicles are made in either Germany or the USA. However, many manufacturers do incorporate onsite renewable energy and recycling practices. Tesla currently manufactures vehicles in California and batteries in Nevada. The Nevada battery Gigafactory is due to be 100 per cent renewably powered with a 70MW solar array and have onsite recycling by 2020. The California grid is also already pretty environmentally friendly with 70 per cent from non-fossil fuels. However, it’s also important to note that many of the components of Tesla’s are not made by Tesla at such facilities.

In a study by Renault, it was found that while the environmental impact of manufacturing electric vehicles is far greater than that of manufacturing gas and diesel vehicles, it is more than made up for over the entire lifecycle of the car. This was true in terms of total energy consumption, use of resources, greenhouse gases and ozone pollution. In Canada for example, the payback would occur after approximately 55,000kms and 77,000 in the USA.

But what happens when you’re ready to let go of your old EV? Well, it’s likely to simply be put on the used car market as electric vehicles last longer than their conventional counterparts. Aluminium doesn’t rust, they have far fewer moving parts to wear out and few disposal fluids to maintain. Teslas also get over the air updates. However, there is an end point for all vehicles and due to the fact that aluminium is 100 per cent recyclable and the battery will also be recycled, not too much of your old EV is going to find itself in landfill, albeit for the rare earth magnets which are also found in conventional cars.

Energy use

How environmentally friendly Teslas are depends entirely on the source of electricity charging them. Using just Tesla’s supercharger network (excluding manufacture) it’s 100 per cent emissions free but what about charging at home? Well, how “green” your Tesla is, depends entirely on where you live in Australia. As technologies like wind and solar vary in output the emissions intensity of the grid changes every minute. A windy night in South Australia for example could mean near-zero emissions charging, however, the next night may look very different.

Of course, much of the information we commonly hear about Teslas comes from California, where the local grid incorporates a fair amount of renewable solar and wind energy. Unfortunately, much of Australia’s grid isn’t so clean. Tesla understands this, yet insists its cars are still cleaner and greener than their internal-combustion counterparts due to the fact that battery-powered cars are more efficient at converting stored energy into forward movement. According to Tesla, Australian Tesla drivers have already saved well over 10,000,000 lbs of CO2 by driving their cars, with the most CO2 saved by Brisbane drivers, followed by Melbourne and Adelaide.

Currently, electricity use in Australia is on the rise. According to the Australian Energy Statistics (AES), energy use for electricity generation rose by 3 per cent in 2015-16, as black coal fired generation increased. However, renewable energy consumption is also on the rise, growing by 4 per cent over the same period. Much of this growth came from hydro, as dam levels improved. While black coal and brown coal production are on the decline, coal still accounts for around three-quarters of Australian energy production.

We Spoke to Chris Jones, National Secretary of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA):

“Buying a new car is bad for the environment, whether it’s electric, petrol or otherwise.  All manufactured goods take energy and resources to make, and these aren’t typically benign processes.  Honestly if doing right by the atmosphere is your primary objective, just ride a bicycle.  However if you must buy a new car, it might as well be an electric car. The energy, emissions and resources that go into building an electric car are typically 15 to 25 per cent higher for an EV than an ICE vehicle. But the real savings are in the operation – no emissions if charged from renewable energy, and very few even when charged from the grid because about 20% of our electricity comes from hydro, solar or wind.  Based on an average of 14,000 km driven a year, by about its second or third year of operation the EV has already emitted less total CO2-e than an ICE car, even in coal-dominated grids like Australia.”

Tesla owner and TOCA Committee Member, Darryl Bourke stated:

“The obvious reduction in greenhouse gasses of EVs are related to the source of the electricity used to charge their batteries. EVs charging from the Australian grid are sourcing power from a very coal orientated power generating topology, but it is changing with more and more renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro coming online. As the grid becomes more green, EVs contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gasses.  With EVs, alternatives to the grid can be used such as charging from your own solar system.

ICE vehicles are dependent on specific fuels such as E10, 98 unleaded, diesel or gas. You cannot pick which is the best on the day. Then there are the environmental friendliness considerations of how the fuels were manufactured and delivered to the service stations. Over 90% of vehicle fuel is from overseas, shipped through the South China seas, further refined, transported mainly by road and stored in underground tanks. All of which generates greenhouse gasses not to mention the proliferation of leaching from leaking service station tanks which Australia is now seeing.”

Australian electricity generation by fuel type

GWh Share (per cent)
Fossil Fuels 216,034.9 83.7
Black coal 115,392.6 44.7
Brown coal 46,979.4 18.2
Gas 47,694.1 18.5
Oil 5,968.8 2.3
Renewables 42,022.1 16.3
Hydro 17,925.0 6.9
Wind 12,973.0 5.0
Bioenergy 3,712.6 1.4
Solar PV small scale 6,847.5 2.7
Solar PV large scale 563.8 0.2
Geothermal 0.2 0.0

Source: Department of the Environment and Energy (2017) Australian Energy Statistics, Table O

How does your state compare?

To figure out just how environmentally friendly it is for you to drive a Tesla, first you need to take a look at how the majority of electricity is generated in your state.

Fossil Fuels Renewable Energy
NSW 85.8% 14.2%
VIC 88.3% 11.7%
QLD 93.5% 6.5%
WA 93.3% 6.7%
SA 58.7% 41.3%
TAS 9.2% 90.8%
NT 98.1% 1.9%

Source: Department of the Environment and Energy (2017) Australian Energy Statistics, Table O

It’s safe to say that you’re going to be far more environmentally friendly driving a Tesla in Tasmania, where over 90 per cent of electricity generated comes from renewable sources, than driving in Queensland where over 90 percent of electricity generated comes from fossil fuels. You may want to rethink your choices before deciding to buy a Tesla for the sake of being “green” in a heavily fossil-fueled state.

That being said, Australia’s energy mix is constantly changing. Professor Bräunl, Director of the Renewable Energy Vehicle Project for The University of Western Australia, stated that renewable energy would continue to grow in Australia as “we’re adding several thousand megawatts of additional renewables capacity”. So while petrol cars will continue to burn the same amount of fuel and produce the same amount of emissions, electric vehicles will get greener over time.

In fact, Tesla itself is dedicated to making the Australian grid more environmentally friendly. In September 2016, a severe storm damaged critical infrastructure in South Australia, causing a state-wide blackout, leaving 1.7 million residents without electricity. The South Australian Government responded by calling for expressions of interest to deploy grid-scale energy storage options with at least 100 megawatts of capacity. Tesla answered their call and won the bid, providing a 100 MW/129 MWh Powerpack system to be paired with global renewable energy provider Neoen’s Hornsdale Wind Farm. The Tesla Powerpack charges using renewable energy from the Wind Farm and delivers electricity during peak hours to help maintain electricity in South Australia. As the largest lithium-ion battery storage project in the world, it provides enough power for more than 30,000 homes. Additionally, Tesla’s Powerwall is now being installed for residential customers throughout Australia.

Australia is currently the world leader when it comes to uptake of grid-connected rooftop solar panels, with over 1.4 million installed on homes. However, rooftop solar accounts for under 3 per cent of our electricity consumption.

We spoke to Brett Sutherland, Managing Director of Solar Power Australia:

“When taking into account the energy expended to produce petrol and diesel as well as the carbon dioxide and other toxic gases produced when burning that fuel, moving motor vehicles from fossil fuel to electric drive provides a considerable benefit to the environment. Installing solar panels to offset the electric vehicle’s energy consumption completes the cycle by utilising the sun’s energy to generate the power in lieu of other non-renewable means. Most people only drive up to 40km per day which equates to around 10kWh of energy per day. This amount of energy can be created with a relatively small 3kW solar power system.”

Is it more environmentally friendly to drive a used car or a Tesla? The answer might surprise you. - How to be more environmentally friendly driving in Australia


How to be more environmentally friendly driving in Australia

Charge your electric vehicle off-peak

There are certain things you can do to make your charging more environmentally friendly. According to UWA’s Professor Bräunl, in fossil-fuel reliant states, you should charge during the evening to use up electricity that otherwise could be wasted. “You have a number of power stations that you cannot shut off overnight so they’re going to be running and producing emissions whether you need the power or not. So you can use that energy to charge cars but you should maybe not attribute the emissions to the cars because the emissions would be there regardless.” Or instead of charging off-peak, you may want to invest in rooftop solar panels to charge your Tesla.

Buy an environmentally friendly used car instead

If you’re interested in being as environmentally friendly as possible and you simply don’t have the money to afford a Tesla, you may want to consider buying an environmentally friendly used car instead. As we’ve shown, some of our most popular used car models outperform the most environmentally friendly Tesla S when it comes to lifecycle CO2 emissions. Buying a used car is not only more environmentally than buying new as we offset some manufacturing emissions but it’s also easier on our hip pocket, meaning there’s no excuse to not be more environmentally friendly driving in Australia.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Last I checked Teslas were not manufactured in Australia. So if you think offsetting manufacturing emissions is a thing, then consider that in your calculations.

    You’re also not considering used Teslas and the recyclability of the batteries.

    And no, you’ve not shown, some of our most popular used car models outperform the most environmentally friendly Tesla S when it comes to lifecycle CO2 emissions. Totally false.

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