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How General Motors is planning to become carbon neutral by 2040

One of the main causes of the carbon emissions that drive climate change is automobiles. And General Motors made big waves in its industry recently by announcing a dramatic ramp up in electric vehicle production, and plans to be carbon neutral by 2040. William Brangham talks with Dane Parker, a senior executive for the carmaker, about the challenges of meeting those goals.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the main causes of the carbon emissions that drive climate change is automobiles. And General Motors made big waves in its industry recently by announcing a dramatic ramp-up in electric vehicle production and plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040.

    William Brangham talks with a senior executive at the carmaker about the challenges of meeting those goals.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    To many, it was yet another signal that gas-powered vehicles are on their way out.

  • Will Ferrell:

    Did you know that Norway sells way more electric cars per capita than the U.S.? Norway. Well, I won't stand for it.

  • William Brangham:

    In this Super Bowl ad, GM, one of the biggest automakers in the world, announced that, in just four years, it'll have 30 new electric car models for sale.

    But there are many hurdles ahead before we get can fully electrify our transportation.

    Joining me now is Dane Parker, chief sustainability officer for General Motors.

    Dane Parker, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Some of the initial press after this ad ran was that the GM is fully phasing out gas-powered vehicles. I mean, that's not totally the case. Can you just give us a sense, what are GM's plans for electric vehicles?

  • Dane Parker:

    Sure. Thank you, William.

    So, we have an aspiration to eliminate tailpipe emissions from all of our light-duty vehicles by 2035, and to be fully carbon-neutral by 2040. So, it is a pretty aggressive plan to shift in all of our markets and all of our segments to electric vehicles.

  • William Brangham:

    It is a very ambitious goal, if you can attain it.

    As you well know, there are certainly challenges ahead. Consumers don't seem to be there yet for electric vehicles. I think it's still just a percentage of the marketplace.

    And we also need a huge network of charging stations to basically take the role of gas stations for all those electric vehicles. How much of an impediment will those things be to this rollout?

  • Dane Parker:

    Well, those are two things that come up a lot.

    And on the consumer one, I think we will find that are getting close to a tipping point. And those who have experienced electric vehicles, almost to a person, say they wouldn't go back. The driving experience, the technology, how quiet they are, and the acceleration, all the elements of a great product in an electric vehicle, I think, are going to bring consumers increasingly rapidly.

    And we are reaching, really, I think that classic tipping point. And that's going to move quickly.

    Now, to your question about infrastructure, the current data that we have says more than 80 percent of charging happens at home. And there's a large number of current consumers who are able to charge at home. And for them, this will be seamless, because the range of these electric vehicles is going to be sufficient for the vast majority of use cases.

    For those who can't is where we need help in developing that infrastructure. I think there's plenty of momentum we can build over the next several years with those who are able to charge easily, and give us time to build the infrastructure out for those who are in areas either where they can't charge in their housing or their work, so that we can get retail options available for them.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk a little bit about the challenge of battery technology.

    We have seen incredible growth so far. But we have got to improve their charging, how long they can drive these vehicles, and also securing enough lithium simply to put in all of those batteries.

    What role do you see for the federal government to help incentivize that technology?

  • Dane Parker:

    Sure. Yes, batteries are the critical component to this transition.

    And in whether it's mineral supply, like you mentioned, with lithium or cobalt, or the production of those batteries, I think government will play an important role in incentivizing the research and development that's needed to remove things like lithium from batteries or like cobalt, come up with alternative technologies and alternative materials, but also to encourage the production of those batteries in the United States, which certainly is important from an energy security perspective and simply from a supply chain perspective.

  • William Brangham:

    If GM is going to be continuing to sell, in part, gas-driven vehicles, how will you achieve carbon neutrality by 2040?

  • Dane Parker:

    Seventy-five percent of our footprint is tailpipe emissions.

    And so if we can eliminate those in all of our light-duty vehicles by 2035 and in our operations through the use of renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency, we get to a point by 2035 and beyond where we're pretty close on our own.

    And so the few — the few remaining tons that we will have might relate to heating, industrial heating, things like that, we feel like we will be able to offset with carbon credits. But the vast majority of what we do, we will be doing by changing our products and changing the energy footprint used to charge those products, as well as run our own operations.

  • William Brangham:

    Certainly, this news has been cheered by many environmental groups.

    There's also been some skepticism, who point out that, for many years, GM was trying to get the Trump administration to dial back auto emissions rules, and that that makes them question whether or not that this — this commitment on GM's part is for real.

    I want to read you a quote from Dan Becker. He's at the Center for Biological Diversity. This is about that carbon offset issue.

    He wrote — quote — "Given GM's polluting track record, their promise to arrange some offsets to sop up the pollution from gas-powered SUVs and pickups that they still plan to make is just smoke and mirrors."

    What is your reaction to that?

  • Dane Parker:

    You know, I think there's been in various comments questions about how we would use offsets.

    And part of what we set out with our 2040 commitment was to use a science-based target methodology to get there. That methodology doesn't allow you to use offsets in that. And so that methodology requires you to actually reduce your direct footprint.

    That's why, for us, this commitment to be carbon-neutral is a commitment to change our products and our operational footprint exclusive of carbon credits or carbon offsets, and why we're now spending $27 billion in these five years to do exactly that, roll out these products faster than we ever have before.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dane Parker, chief sustainability officer for General Motors, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Dane Parker:

    Thank you, William, for the time.

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