LOS ANGELES--While the press was gathered in LA for the greenest auto show in recent memory, an event dominated by the imminent release of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, GM needed to demonstrate that its environmental commitment is deeper than a single very innovative car program (two if you count the 42-mpg Cruze Eco).
Future Chevy Volt owners line up at the Los Angeles Auto Show: GM is burnishing its green image. (General Motors photo)
The company was basking in the glow of eco-celebrity: It won not one, not two but three green car of the year awards (from Motor Trend, Automobile Magazine and Green Car Journal). But it wanted even more positive press, so during the show's press days Chevrolet announced that it would be "offsetting" its carbon emissions with $40 million in funding for altruistic clean energy projects.
Mike Robinson, a General Motors environmental vice president, told me the $40 million will add up to eight million tons of carbon reduction (approximately equal to its 2011 car production). The company's investment will be in U.S. projects, encompassing local initiatives such as winterizing schools, renewable energy programs and broad-based conservation efforts.
Given how GM is approaching this, it would be hard to level greenwashing charges. Although GM featured its investment in an image-burnishing New York Times full-page ad Monday (and TV ads run during football games), Robinson said the company isn't after "an immediate sales lift." The investments will be spread out over two years, with input from a number of environmental groups.
"It's more important to do it right than do it quickly," Robinson said. "Our stakeholders are interested in seeing this done wisely, and getting the full benefit of the investment."
Bob Sheppard is the vice president of corporate programs at Clean Air-Cool Planet, which is advising GM along with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, The Climate Group and Climate Action Reserve. I asked him what he says when the phrase "greenwashing" comes up.
"We work with a wide range of big companies on catalyzing climate leadership, and we get a lot of that," Sheppard said. "If GM had just plunked down some money to plant trees, that might be fair to say, but the company really put together a brain trust that has been working around renewable energy for a long time. They really came to us for guidance, without a lot of preconceived notions. We had a good sense that everything was on the table."
Sheppard said that the GM advisory group would be getting together in December and January and looking at criteria for making its first grants. "We'll be making some preliminary recommendations, and talking about the success stories of some of these projects," he said. The project will be managed by Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a new player to me.
Clean Air-Cool Planet has emphasized weatherization projects in its home state of New Hampshire. Sheppard said a project in Temple, New Hampshire that put a six-inch-thick insulation blanket around the Town Hall and fire station is saving at least 60 percent on local energy bills. "Lots of corporations come out with programs focusing on wind and solar to burnish their image, but energy-efficiency is a core issue and it can show results immediately."
In the aftermath of the Tea Party victories, it's apparent that Americans are less willing than they were previously to believe that global warming is real, and also less supportive of climate-related projects. But the exact same efforts, when framed as a way to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, are widely popular. In New Hampshire, Sheppard said, some 80 percent of energy dollars go out of state, so localization is at stake, too.
GM says the eight million tons of carbon reduction could offset the emissions from the 1.9 million cars and trucks Chevrolet might sell in 2011. Robinson also says the company reduced its carbon emissions 60 percent between 1990 and 2010 (in part by closing plants and producing fewer cars), and has also gone "zero waste" at 75 plants, which are more than half of its total inventory. "We over-achieved on that goal," he said. "Ultimately we want all landfill-free facilities."
It would be easy to be cynical about the company that gave us the Hummer going green, but it's hard to fault what GM is actually doing on the ground.
From Popular Mechanics: The 10 Best-of-Show Cars at the LA Auto Show
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