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Phil Covington headshot

Meet the Climate Scientist Heading Sustainability and Government Affairs at Audi

Four years into his current role at Audi, this executive spoke with us about why the automaker has placed sustainability and government affairs in one role.
By Phil Covington

The 2022 Audi e-tron GT

TriplePundit recently had an opportunity to speak to the director of sustainability and government affairs at Audi of America. What particularly piqued our interest in speaking with him is, not only is it atypical to combine sustainability and government affairs into one role at a car company, but in this case, the role is occupied by a person who is also a climate scientist.

We were interested to understand how placing a climate scientist in this role helps Audi navigate and perhaps drive an auto industry increasingly committed to electrification, and to learn what lies ahead for the company and for an industry in flux. 

Spencer Reeder, who started out as a chemical and materials scientist, is the person driving these efforts at Audi of America. Having previously worked for Boeing on environmental programs, and in particular, researching ways to reduce the toxicity of products used in the aerospace industry, Reeder later went back to graduate school to study earth sciences. This led him to focus on geophysics and climate science, and later to developing the environmental portfolio for Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen’s philanthropic organization. 

Four years into his current role at Audi, we asked Reeder to talk a bit about Audi placing sustainability and government affairs in one role, and his approach to the job. 

“It’s only when you align government policy advocacy work with sustainability goals, that you truly mean what you say” he explains, adding that when he came on board he was “going to be a loud voice for this” both in terms of his engagement with the industry but importantly, internally within Audi.

By this he meant, he saw his role as one which needed to inspire the organization to see sustainability as something that would become part of its DNA. This was particularly important because around that time, Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, was recently emerging from its “dieselgate” scandal.

Though Reeder recognizes he is just one voice in a large organization, aligning sustainability with government affairs manifests in things like opposing the previous administrations’ efforts to roll back national fuel economy standards. Audi, as part of VW, was one of only four car companies which joined with California to maintain more stringent mileage standards, for example.

Audi also aggressively prices carbon emissions within its own organization. Setting a price of $200 per ton — a level higher than industry standard, by an order of magnitude — Reeder says, rather than operating this as “shadow pricing,” the company actually makes a transfer of funds which is then used to undertake further CO2 mitigation activities internally. “The only way to effect long term change is through pricing carbon into your business systemically,” Reeder asserts.

Reeder was also a voice internally advocating for the company to lean-in to battery electric vehicle (BEV) technology for the future, even over competing technologies such as fuel cells. With that in mind, we asked him what he thinks the opportunities and impediments are for electric vehicles (EVs) in the short term.

First of all, he says customer demand is “very strong” though concedes it remains quite regionalized at the moment. Unlike California, many states have yet to make strong commitments to EVs, but Audi is not having any difficulty selling the ones it’s producing. 

Unfortunately, though, for the time being at least, costs are heading in an adverse direction. “Things are going to get more expensive before they get cheaper,” Reeder says. This is a result of higher commodity prices, and supply chain shortages in general — the latter, or course, impacting many industries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another important challenge Reeder identifies is the need for better charging infrastructure. Federal funding, he says, is “completely insufficient,” especially at this moment when he believes EVs have passed the point of the early adopter phase and are quickly moving into the initial stages of the mass market. He warns, “the mass market won’t tolerate inconvenience.”

As such, he says, broadly distributed fast charging infrastructure will be necessary to sustain the mass market, equipped with 150 kW fast chargers at a minimum. 

Given Reeder’s chemical and materials science background, we were keen to ask him about end-of-life battery considerations, since this is often cited by EV detractors as an environmental concern associated with the push towards electric vehicles. 

As well as identifying energy storage as an important second-life use for vehicle batteries, he is quite bullish on the opportunities for battery recycling, even to the point that recycling valuable battery components may even help wind down raw materials extraction at some point in the future. Indeed, Reeder says, most vehicle batteries probably won’t be repurposed for energy storage, so it is “critical for Audi to have a closed-loop life cycle for batteries.”

The automaker's goals are to have reduced its carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2025 compared with 2019 levels and for 30 percent of its vehicle portfolio to be fully BEV or plug-in hybrid by 2025.

Image credit: Audi media relations

Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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