As Chevy Ends Award-Winning Sustainability Plan, The Climate Is Just As Screwed As Ever

Should an automobile company be applauded for its contributions to the environment when its core business is fundamental in destroying it? Well, Chevrolet is trying its luck. 


The company just completed a five-year carbon reduction initiative. It spent $40 million buying carbon offsets from over 30 different projects across America. When a company buys a carbon offset, it usually pays another company to reduce emissions, in order to “offset” emissions elsewhere. Chevy bought offsets that reduced the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by 8 million metric tons.


“That’s like planting a forest the size of Yellowstone,” according to the initiative’s website. It’s also equivalent to about 3 percent of the annual carbon pollution from cars that Chevrolet’s parent company, GM, sells in a single year.


Though the magnitude is small compared to the damage that cars do across the U.S., the 8 million metric tons of offsets that Chevy bought over the last five years made up a huge chunk of the voluntary carbon market. 


The company also won an award from the Environmental Protection Agency in early 2015 for the Campus Clean Energy Campaign it created as part of Chevy’s offsetting initiative. The campaign helped universities set up the right protocols to be able to sell their own carbon credits on the voluntary carbon market. Chevy then bought credits from the universities.


“Our purchases were really swinging the voluntary market,” said Pat Nye, a senior consultant on carbon and renewable energy for the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which ran the program for Chevrolet. That says more about the market than it does Chevrolet. Carbon offsets are a largely voluntary market in the U.S. since only a few regional regulators make companies buy carbon credits. 


But there’s obviously a disconnect here. The language about Chevrolet’s environmental initiatives glosses over the fact that it makes cars. It’s part of an even larger corporation dedicated to manufacturing automobiles. We can’t talk about stemming CO2 pollution without talking about where that pollution is coming from. Chevrolet’s raison d’être is to sell carbon dioxide-producing machines. And this environmental effort is a marketing tool to sell more cars. 


“As a company, we view sustainability as a business approach, a mindset, on maximizing long-term stakeholder value,” said David Tulauskas, the director of sustainability at General Motors. “We are focused on the customer and they expect us to do a lot.”


The EPA estimates the average car emits 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Therefore, 8 million metric tons of carbon is, incidentally, about equal to the annual emissions total of the number of cars Chevrolet sold in the United States in 2010, when Chevy launched its offsetting initiative. With about 2 million Chevy cars sold in 2014, that emissions total is up to about 9.4 million metric tons. 


Chevrolet’s parent company, GM, sold almost 10 million cars around the world in 2014. That would put GM’s indirect carbon emissions at 47 million metric tons for 2014, while it offset only 1.6 million metric tons. And the initiative won’t continue now that Chevy has met its five-year goal. 


Climate change is not just Chevy’s problem, it’s humanity’s problem, created in part by every automaker, every car owner and every person who has ever used a car as transportation.




The real lesson here is that a huge, award-winning corporate environmental initiative can only manage to make up for about 3 percent of the carbon pollution that the brand’s parent company causes per year — even when it takes over the voluntary carbon market. Chevrolet put a band aid over a gaping, still-bleeding hole in environmental conservation.


This is not to point the finger only at Chevy — it’s a company that’s at least thinking about sustainability, though the impact is limited. Climate change is not just Chevy’s problem, it’s humanity’s problem. It’s a global catastrophe created in part by every automaker, every car owner and every person who has ever used a car as transportation.


Chevy is not attempting to completely absolve itself of the carbon its cars put into the atmosphere. Tulauskas said that when the company originally started planning this initiative, it wanted to make Chevrolet a “carbon-neutral vehicle brand.” But, he said, the company quickly realized that “you can’t buy your way to carbon neutrality.” Instead, it tried “to do something that had a measurable impact in communities across America.”


Over the longer term, part of the solution is more electric vehicles, which GM is slowly moving toward. Chevrolet has one all-electric car, the Volt. But automakers are still automakers. GM also sold nearly a million large SUVs, known colloquially as “gas guzzlers,” in 2014. (Let’s not talk about this truck.) 


“We’re not making a commitment where we foresee a world where we are just going to get rid of petroleum,” said Tulauskas. 


The real point, though, is the world cannot rely on corporations to do the right thing, because the right thing is rarely good for the bottom line. “Supporting strong regulations is the most important thing a car company can do from a climate standpoint,” said Carol Lee Rawn, the transportation program at Ceres, a non-profit that focuses on sustainability advocacy.


Climate change is a society-wide problem and will require a society-wide solution.

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