GM's bet on carbon neutrality rides green wave in Washington

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — General Motors Co.'s plan to become carbon-neutral by 2040 and drop gas and diesel engines in all new light-duty vehicles by 2035 reflects a newly Democratic-controlled capital pivoting to an aggressive climate agenda. 

The automaker's leadership was emboldened by changes in Washington, where President Joe Biden is touting a similar pledge — net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050 — as he promised significant help to businesses and consumers to advance the technology needed to get there. 

GM CEO Mary Barra

Achieving the automaker's goal will span several administrations, Dane Parker, GM's sustainability officer, said Thursday. But the company leaders have been talking with the Biden administration and are encouraged by its commitment to advancing emissions-free vehicles. 

"We are excited about the things that the new administration is doing to enable this future," Parker said. "Their enthusiasm for electric vehicles and for an all-electric future has been something that has created with us a greater sense of optimism for where we're going and the support to get there."

It marks a “huge step" in a changing auto industry in Detroit and globally, said Barry Rabe, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. "Is this the beginning of a larger transition that could actually accelerate the whole policy shift toward electric vehicles?"

That optimism is tempered by concern within the industry that workers — especially hourly workers staffing engine and transmission plants — will be left behind because electric vehicles require fewer parts and fewer employees on the shop floor to assemble them. Biden and other leaders have maintained that millions of new jobs will be created by green industries, but the transition between them remains unclear.

Since taking office just over a week ago, Biden has brought the United States back into the Paris Climate Accords — an international agreement to work toward limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius — paused oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands, introduced plans to double offshore wind production, directed the administration to begin replacing the federal fleet with electric vehicles and more.

He's calling for additional sweeping policies that would require Congressional approval and significant spending to the tune of $2 trillion. He says he hopes to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the energy and power sector by 2035 and nationwide by 2050. 

"In my view, we've already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis and we can't wait any longer," Biden said Wednesday. "We see it with our own eyes. We feel it. We know it in our bones. And it's time to act."

Securing that $2 trillion may prove challenging due to tight majorities for Democrats in both the House and Senate. But if the administration is successful, portions of it would go to help the auto industry with research and development of zero-emissions technology, installing 500,000 charging stations nationwide, and providing consumer incentives to purchase EVs. 

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, whose district includes GM's downtown headquarters, said we're witnessing "transformational" change and is confident Congress will find the funding. "We cannot allow the innovation and the technology that we're so proud of as a country be held hostage. We're going to have to figure it out."

Those incentives will be an important part of consumer adoption, said Parker of GM, adding that Biden's commitment to federal aid is an "important part" of the company's ability to announce their bold carbon neutrality goal.  

Michigan Democrats praised GM's decision Thursday. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office said she is "hopeful that other companies will follow suit and reduce climate change's harmful impacts."

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said any air quality improvement brought on by the change is a good thing: "This is the right move. I do hope they are much more aggressive" than the timeline they laid out, she added. "This kind of move toward reductions in emissions is critically important."

GM is the first major automaker to set a public deadline to transition fully to EVs, exerting immense pressure on its rivals across the industry. Ford Motor Co. has also expressed interest and invested billions in rapidly developing electric vehicles, but it remains committed at least in the near term to gas-electric hybrid versions of such iconic models as the F-150 pickup. 

Still, the threat to blue-collar workers from the move to electrification cannot be under-estimated, as the United Auto Workers' research department detailed in a 2019 White Paper. The Biden administration argues that transformational change is possible without hurting auto workers, and has promised to create 10 million clean energy jobs and more than double the amount of jobs in the auto industry as it transitions to a greener future. 

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Biden's nominee to lead the Department of Energy, testified before a Senate panel earlier this week. Senators on the committee from oil, gas and coal-producing states expressed concern that their communities would be left jobless in a turn to renewable energy sources. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, begged Granholm: "Don’t just leave them in a barren wasteland."

Granholm assured him and others that it will be a top priority, and they'll use "place-based" solutions to leverage existing skills in traditional energy to grow jobs in new industries. 

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, struck a similar chord in a statement: “As the auto industry makes technological advancements, my focus is on making sure those investments are taking place in Michigan. At the end of the day, the autoworkers in my district want access to good-paying jobs where they can manufacture quality products."

The UAW released a statement saying it's members "have never shied away from working with new technology. Even with these new product goals, it will be some time before the transition occurs. But the important thing is that President Biden agrees with our position that any new jobs replacing (internal combustion) engines are union wage and benefit jobs."

It's incumbent upon policymakers to use procurement, tax credits and other tools to help companies and communities retain whatever domestic jobs they can under the new industry, said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser for the Progressive Policy Institute who served as a climate adviser to President Bill Clinton. 

"The alternative is to not help the industry and see more jobs and production go overseas," he said. "Because the industry is moving toward EVs whether you like it or not."

Twitter: @rbeggin