GM has just signed on to the Climate Declaration, joining forces with 40 other U.S. companies to make the case that swift, aggressive climate action represents an almost unprecedented opportunity for economic development. The alliance is particularly notable for GM, which barely more than ten years ago was busily pounding the final nail into the coffin of EV1, its short-lived electric vehicle (EV) venture.
EV1 looked to be the end of GM's foray into sustainable mobility, especially given its history with that icon of conspicuous carbon consumption, the Hummer. And yet, within the past couple of years we find GM braving a hail of verbal bullets from conservative pundits and legislators to promote its new Chevy Volt plug-in EV, while backing up its commitment to EV technology by joining the Climate Declaration. It's a vivid demonstration of the ability of some U.S. corporations to switch gears with relative speed in order to adapt to new circumstances, innovating to adapt their products to evolving consumer demands.
TriplePundit first took note of the Climate Declaration when it launched last month. Apparently, it was timed to counteract industry blowback during confirmation hearings for President Obama's nominee to lead the U.S. EPA, Gina McCarthy. As head of the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, McCarthy has been the point person in the country's transition away from last-generation coal-fired power plants.
At the time, we noted that the Declaration signatories make up a particularly interesting group of climate action advocates, especially from a green jobs angle. That's because none of them are in the energy sector, except to the extent that they may have installed solar arrays at their facilities, so none of them are in head-to-head competition with the fossil fuel industry.
In addition, few of the original 33 signatories (Seventh Generation being one exception) were conceived exclusively as producers of bio-based products, so there is little direct competition with petrochemicals on that score.
Instead, the emphasis is on classic, conventional U.S. companies that are not in the energy sector, but which are adapting their business to compete successfully in the context of a historically significant trend.
What this amounts to is a "ripple effect" argument for clean technology and economic development that goes far beyond green jobs in the energy and petrochemical sectors. Adding up the numbers, those 33 companies account for about 475,000 jobs and $450 billion in annual revenue.
"...just as America rose to the great challenges of the past and came out stronger than ever, we have to confront this challenge, and we have to win. And in doing this right, by saving money when we use less electricity, by driving a more efficient car, by choosing clean energy, by inventing new technologies that other countries buy, and creating jobs here at home, we will maintain our way of life and remain a true superpower in a competitive world."
Now take a look at the way GM is marketing the Volt, and you'll notice a real tension with the petroleum industry.
While some EV manufacturers focus almost exclusively on the driving experience and the convenience of EV charging, GM takes a different tack. The Volt has a gas tank as a backup for range anxiety, and GM has leveraged that to pursue the angle that EVs represent freedom from gas stations.
For a company so intimately entwined with the petroleum products throughout its history, that's an astonishingly aggressive break with the past, and it indicates just how much of a liability the petroleum industry has become to the U.S. automotive sector.
The tension is especially evident with Honda, Ford and BMW, which have formed significant new cross-industry partnerships revolving around the integration of EV technology and other home appliances, creating an innovation platform impossible to achieve on petroleum.
All together, that gives Ford an enormous stake in a clean technology future. Nevertheless, Ford raised a few eyebrows earlier this week when word came out that it has included the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline in its lobbying portfolio.
For now, Ford hasn't taken a public position on the pipeline, but that could change pretty quickly if it decides to join GM in the Climate Declaration, and it will be interesting to see how the issue plays out in the rest of the U.S. automotive sector.
[Image: EV1 by RightBrainPhotography via flickr.com]
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.