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RP Siegel headshot

GM’s 2013 Sustainability Report: Connecting to What’s Important

Words by RP Siegel

General Motors has been having a fairly tough time of it lately, with a record-setting number of recalls this year, due, in part, to the increased scrutiny the industry has been facing, as well as the increased complexity of today’s cars. Fortunately, the company has some good news in its 2013 sustainability report, which is called, “Connecting You to What is Important." As the name suggests, the report previews some of advantages of new, highly connected vehicles in terms of convenience, time and energy saved through optimal routing, and safety achieved by interactivity between vehicles.

I spoke with David Tulauskas, GM’s director of sustainability, about the report.

Triple Pundit: When we last spoke, you mentioned a goal of retiring 8 million metric tons of carbon emissions. How are you doing with respect to that goal?

Dave Tulauskas: We are now at 7.7 million metric tons committed, with 3.6 metric tons already retired. About six weeks ago, we announced another really exciting project within that initiative, a new VCS- approved methodology, dealing with university carbon reductions, either campus-wide, or on a LEED building basis.

3p: Great. So getting on to the report, I had a question about the supply chain, where you talk about lifecycle carbon footprint. In one section of the report it says “supplier parts account for 2 percent of our carbon footprint,” but later on it says that these parts represent 87 percent of the lifecycle carbon emissions. What am I missing here?

DT: That is a little confusing. When you look at the Scope 1,2 and 3 emissions, the use of our products make up nearly 96 percent of our total lifecycle carbon footprint. That really dwarfs all the other aspects of our carbon footprint. The manufacturing Scope 1 and 2 make up about 2 percent, and the other Scope 3 emissions, dealing with parts, make up that other 2 percent. But when you look at [the portion of the lifecycle that encompasses just] the mines to the manufacturing plant, including getting the iron ore out of the ground, vehicle parts make up 87 percent of that footprint.

3p: Thank you for that clarification. So tell me what’s in this report that you’re most excited about?

DT: One, this is our new CEO’s first participation. Mary Barr became CEO in January and spent quite a bit of time on that letter [which is excerpted below]. We’re really excited about her role and the way she is trying to change the culture.

“This customer focus underscores why sustainability is and will continue to be a core strategy for GM. Customers—and that includes everyone who might someday buy a GM product—expect us to be thoughtful, honorable and responsible in everything we do. In other words, they care about more than the cars. They care how we build them and how we engage with the world around us. This knowledge, and the discipline that flows from it, is transforming our approach to product design, manufacturing, safety, quality, the environment, customer care and a host of other areas, as you can read in this report.”

The CEO also highlighted a number of green accomplishments.
 "A few statistics show just how comprehensive our approach is. For example, we are committed to reducing the average CO2 tailpipe emissions from our U.S. vehicle fleet 15 percent by 2017, while China will target a 28 percent reduction by 2020 and Europe a 27 percent reduction by 2021. The vehicles we design, build and sell tell these stories the best:

  • Lightweighting our new four-wheel drive Chevrolet Silverado helped us increase city fuel economy by 16 percent and highway fuel economy by 11 percent, compared to the prior year’s model.

  • Opel/Vauxhall introduced its all-new generation diesel engine, the 1.6 CDTI ECOTEC in the Zafira Tourer. With BlueInjection selective catalytic reduction technology, it already meets the strict Euro 6 emissions limits.

  • The Sail EV from Shanghai General Motors is its first electric vehicle developed for the Chinese market.

"Of course, how we manufacture our vehicles is an equally important part of our sustainability strategy. For example, we added a net seven landfill-free sites in 2013 to bring our total to 111 worldwide. In addition, our facilities are also working toward a 20 percent reduction in energy and carbon intensity by 2020 from a baseline of 2010, while more than doubling renewable energy use globally."
DT: I’m also excited about expanding our product commitments, making progress towards those commitments and then adding the China market. I’m excited about adding our electrified fleet options, from the Spark EV to the Cadillac ELR. We’ve achieved some of our manufacturing commitments. We hit our goal on total waste reduction, seven years early, VOC reduction, seven years early, and landfill-free non-manufacturing facilities, we hit that goal early as well.

We continue to be the industry leader in waste management, and we take the leadership seriously. We mentor other companies, share best practices, support EPA suppliers partnership. The weakest region in the U.S. is the Southeast, so we launched an initiative there earlier this year to support that. Finally, we are really excited about connectivity and the way that’s delivering benefits beyond what people imagined. This report is all about our approach to customer-driven sustainability, and connectivity is playing a huge role today and is going to play an even bigger role in transforming the industry going forward.

3p: Can you talk about ways that connectivity in cars is being used to help the environment?

DT: Sure, Reduced travel times, more efficient routes. Other apps, like the ones for the Volt which allow [users] to only charge when there are renewables on the grid. Our partnership with TimberRock and their solar [electric vehicle] charging systems, uses the connectivity of the Volt, so that when there’s high demand on a grid, that solar power can be redirected back into the grid to minimize peak demand.

3p: I’m assuming this is negotiated with the Volt owner.

DT: Yes. Absolutely.

3p: Very nice. So, you mentioned GM in China. What is your take on what’s happening there? Are people concerned about their carbon footprint? What kind of cars are they buying?

DT: China surpassed the U.S. in 2009 as the world’s largest auto market. Vehicle sales are strong, reinforcing some of your concerns, though there is some good news, too. For example, they have implemented some of the most stringent fuel efficiency requirements (Phase 4), and we outline their progress towards those fuel efficiency standards in the report. As Mary mentioned in her comments, we have committed to reduce GM China’s average fuel economy by 28 percent by 2020. We also talk about a partnership with the World Environment Center we’ve had going on in China since 2005, which works with our supply chain to reduce energy and emissions.

There’s no one in the leadership in China that doesn’t recognize the challenges they have in front of them from an environmental perspective. They are implementing stringent standards across all industries, though they still struggle with enforcement, especially at the provincial level. Local leaders don’t always share the same global perspective as the central government. China is where we first launched the EN-V networked vehicle. We've also been involved in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City.

We also launched the Springo EV, produced by a joint venture over there. Frankly, it’s starting off slower than I would have anticipated, but they have an opportunity to leapfrog the technology and go forward with electrification. They are pursuing policies, incentives and regulations to help mainstream EVs as quickly as possible. It’s an exciting place, they are growing fast. They’re improving their efficiency. But the absolute targets given their size and their growth keep getting bigger and bigger.

3p: How do the cars you are selling in China compare with those you sell in the U.S. from a fuel efficiency perspective?

DT: We share power trains with them, but  on average they have been using smaller displacement engines than we do. [Note: gasoline in China in currently around $4.80/gallon] On a model-to-model basis, they are roughly equivalent.

3p: Are they buying the bigger cars, the SUVs?

DT: We don’t sell the big Tahoes and Suburbans over there. Mostly they’re buying small to mid-size cars.

3p: That’s a relief. So, you mentioned autonomous vehicles, are they coming?

DT: The technology is here now, at least on the vehicle end. Nothing else needs to be invented. What’s lacking is the integration with legacy systems and overcoming public perception. And we need smarter infrastructure. We need smart stop signs and smart traffic lights

3p: Anything else you want to share?

DT: The last thing I want to highlight are the new partnerships we’ve gotten involved with.  Mike Robinson, our VP of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, has a quote in the report about climate change, energy and congestion providing valuable disruptions to our industry. Our industry is not sustainable as we’re operating today. We’re all racing to figure out solutions.  Since 2010, we’re a new company and we are committed to being part of the solution. Back in the days when we were selling the Hummer, people like Sierra Club, NRDC [and] Union of Concerned Scientists weren’t exactly looking for opportunities to collaborate with us. Now we’re talking to them all the time. That’s really an exciting sign of the times.

Image courtesy of GM.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com


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