For the past 4 years, General Motors dutifully marched to the tune called by the former president. It embraced his rollback of exhaust emissions standards and joined in a lawsuit designed to prevent California from adopting its own emissions rules. But a new broom sweeps clean, so they say, and now that Joe Biden is calling the tune in Washington, GM has decided it’s time to
suck up to the new administration get on the right side of history and join the EV revolution.
In a press release dated January 28, 2021, CEO Mary Barra said, “General Motors is joining governments and companies around the globe working to establish a safer, greener and better world. We encourage others to follow suit and make a significant impact on our industry and on the economy as a whole.” On LinkedIn, she wrote, “As one of the world’s largest automakers, we hope to set an example of responsible leadership in a world that is faced with climate change.”
The company now says it plans to be carbon neutral by 2040 and has signed the Business Ambition Pledge for 1.5°C, a call to action from a global coalition of UN agencies, business and industry leaders. It will work with the Environmental Defense Fund to “develop a shared vision of an all-electric future and an aspiration to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035.”
That word “aspiration” is important. Notice that GM has not made a firm commitment to light duty electric vehicles. What is it really saying is that if market conditions are favorable, it will make every effort to get there by the stated date. To do that, it says it is prepared to invest $27 billion over the next five years to promote electric vehicles. By 2026, GM will offer 30 all electric models globally and 40 percent of its U.S. models will be battery electric by the end of 2025. “GM plans to offer an EV for every customer, from crossovers and SUVs to trucks and sedans,” the company says.
“With this extraordinary step forward, GM is making it crystal clear that taking action to eliminate pollution from all new light duty vehicles by 2035 is an essential element of any automaker’s business plan,” says Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp. “EDF and GM have had some important differences in the past, but this is a new day in America — one where serious collaboration to achieve transportation electrification, science based climate progress, and equitably shared economic opportunity can move our nation forward.”
If the focus on science based planning and economic justice sound familiar, they should. Those are precisely the themes that are at the heart of the executive orders signed by President Biden this week. The person sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office wields tremendous power to guide the national conversation at all levels. As Fred Krupp says, Biden’s plan “creates demand and drives down costs as privately owned fleets follow suit.”
There are some skeptics still. GM has yet to signal its willingness to join with Ford, Volkswagen, Volvo, and Honda to accept the emissions protocols put forth by the California Air Resources Board, a move that would more the industry toward a new understanding on tailpipe emissions for the nation as a whole. It also talks about carbon offsets being part of its net zero goal. Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Washington Post, “given GM’s polluting track record, their promise to arrange some offsets for pollution” meant that the company’s plan was ” just blue smoke and mirrors.”
But Paul Beldsoe, a former climate advisor in the Clinton White House, said GM is setting the tone for the U.S. manufacturing. “When America’s most iconic manufacturer commits to carbon neutrality that’s a huge signal to the rest of the economy,” he says. “At the same time, it’s clear GM is trying to burnish its reputation from past practices and justify new tax incentives.”
GM and Tesla have both exhausted their allowances for federal tax rebates, which means their electric vehicles now are at a competitive disadvantage compared to those from Hyundai, KIA, Volkswagen, Ford, and others. Most observers expect a revamped federal EV incentive program to be announced in the near future.
GM is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. It’s like a company at war with itself. It created one of the best plug-in hybrids in history than let it languish with no sales support. It created a pretty good electric car and then left it to wither on the vine for 5 long years with few significant improvements. It agreed to tough new emissions standards to stave off bankruptcy a decade ago then reneged on its promises once the government in Washington changed. It has fought tooth and nail to prevent Tesla from selling its cars direct to customers in many states for the past decade.
Is its latest announcement for real or just a marriage of convenience? Past history is no guarantee of future performance but then again, can a leopard really change its spots? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.
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