Tesla's groundbreaking development

The Lowy Interpreter

The Guardian, summarising the latest International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook report, comes up with the attention-grabbing headline that the US could become the world's biggest oil producer in a decade, displacing Saudi Arabia. The story itself puts the date at 2017, making the headline look conservative. The Australian online magazine for all things environmental, Climate Spectator, puts the date in the mid-2020s, while TIME says 2020 exactly.

Whatever the exact date, the bigger picture is that we're not running out of oil, which, if you're concerned about climate change, seems like bad news. The situation is not helped by the extraordinary subsidies governments lay on for fossil fuel producers. The IEA reports that these subsidies 'jumped by almost 30% to $523 billion' globally. How much better would we be doing if this money was pumped into basic research on renewables and energy efficiency?

One bit of silver lining news on the energy front is that the Tesla Model S was recently named US Motor Trend magazine's 2013 car of the year. It got the same award from Automobile Magazine and was among TIME's 25 inventions of 2012.

The reason this matters is that the Model S is a fully electric car (Tesla Motors is the electric car company founded in 2003 by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk). Yes, the Model S is a luxury sedan so it's not going to outsell the Corolla, but it won this award for being the best car, not the best electric car. The Model S is no geekish motoring oddity; it's a mainstream consumer product that performs its task better than its rivals but just happens to use an environmentally friendly propulsion system. This car looks set to 'normalise' electric propulsion in consumer minds.

I'm by no means the first to make this argument, but it's worth restating: if the climate change problem is framed as being a choice between economic growth and survival, growth will always win. Unless there's a drought or other natural disaster, the dangers of climate change are too distant to convince voters that sacrifices need to be made. So governments pick growth because they know they will be punished if they do not.

If climate change is to be tackled effectively, it won't be by creating scarcity or sacrificing growth. It will be by developing green products that are 'better than the less green products they replace' and which still satisfy people's ambitions to create materially better lives for themselves and their children.

So, kudos to Tesla.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.