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Elon Musk Set to Benefit Under Trump, But Will Sustainability?

NASA doesn’t just train astronauts and send them into space - it also does a good deal of Earth-related research, providing us with an overview of the planet’s continuing evolution, and making important contributions to our understanding of what’s happening to the Earth because of climate change. But with the coming inauguration of Donald Trump, that’s about to change.

First, a bit of context: NASA space exploration began in 1958, partly as a response to Russia’s Soviet Sputnik program. Initially, the Space Act discouraged private space transport services, and made NASA the only provider of space transportation. The Apollo missions followed, during which NASA had 4.4 percent of the federal budget.

By 2011, NASA’s budget had been reduced to 0.5 percent. With the steady decrease in budget came a change in space exploration policy during the Bush years. That’s when Elon Musk’s SpaceX came on board. As we’ve seen with National Parks, a decrease in federal budgets opens the door for public-private partnerships. Simply put, private entities can help foot the bill for federal agencies’ operations.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide cargo transport to and from the International Space Station. Under Trump, the profitability of the SpaceX-NASA partnership will increase. Trump favors human space exploration over NASA’s Earth science; he also favors partnerships between NASA and commercial entities.

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For sustainability advocates, a shift away from NASA’s climate change research is bad news. But for fans of Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire who specializes in innovation, solar power, electric cars and rockets to Mars, NASA’s space exploration focus could be a good thing.

It’s worth noting the rise of Musk. He founded Paypal and subsequently sold it to eBay for $1.5 billion. With his $160 million share, Musk – whose ultimate goal is the colonization of Mars - founded SpaceX. He got in on Tesla in 2004, and became CEO in 2008.

In 2009, the Department of Energy gave Tesla $500 million in loans as part of the stimulus plan; Tesla was the only car company to pay that back. Then in 2015, the Tesla Energy division created the Powerwall lithium-ion battery, which stores solar power for use in homes and businesses. In an effort to harness 100 percent renewable energy, Tesla Energy is currently partnering with Amazon.

From the get-go, Musk wasn’t a fan of Trump as prospective president. He’s quoted as saying: “I think a bit strongly that (Trump) is probably not the right guy.” The Washington Post pegged Trump’s election sweep as bad news for Tesla, since Trump wants to roll back electric car tax credits. In general, his policies have gotten an icy reception from Musk. But now, Musk will be working with Trump as an advisor on the Strategic and Policy Forum.

The Trump presidency signals a time when continued progress toward sustainability and adoption of renewable energy will be in the hands of the private sector, as well as people who support environmentally responsible companies. The EPA’s focus on curbing climate change, the Paris Climate Agreement, government regulations on coal and fossil fuel industries – Trump plans to repeal all of these advancements. But Musk, a sustainability advocate whose companies and projects favor clean energy, is now an operative inside Trump’s ranks.

It’s up to consumers and businesses alike to advance sustainability. In terms of Musk’s primary contribution to sustainability so far - electric vehicles - ReportLinker projects they will make up about 1 percent of the global car market in 2020. ReportLinker quotes the International Council on Clean Transportation: “Rich people who have formerly bought the flagship Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 Series and Audi A8 are turning to the Tesla Model S.” Tesla’s latest release, the Model X, is also reputed to be among the best electric vehicles on the market. Along with Musk’s new advisory role with Trump, the desirability of Tesla’s cars spells good news for Tesla - and for Musk’s sustainability efforts.

But electric vehicles are only as clean as the source that generates electricity. If coal plants end up powering Tesla cars, this isn’t a win for sustainability advocates and the environment. Furthermore, a 1 percent market share for electric vehicles is rather low. The figure reflects the cars’ price point; people who can afford luxury cars are - for the most part - the only ones who can afford to fork out cash for Tesla’s offerings, including the lithium-ion batteries. That’s going to have to change if Musk wants to make a real dent in humanity’s carbon footprint, especially during the reign of Donald Trump.


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