Happy Retirement: 11 Reflections on the Chevrolet Carbon-Reduction Initiative

Happy Retirement: 11 Reflections on the Chevrolet Carbon-Reduction Initiative

Chevrolet co-created a self-sustaining clean-energy conversation via #CleanEnergyU where college students talk with business and climate leaders.

Chevrolet co-created a self-sustaining clean-energy conversation via #CleanEnergyU where college students talk with business and climate leaders.

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.@GM sustainability director, @DavidTulauskas, reflects on @Chevrolet #Carbon-Reduction Initiative http://bit.ly/1kELv3x #CleanEnergyU
Wednesday, November 18, 2015 - 11:25am

CAMPAIGN: Chevrolet Carbon-Reduction Initiative


Please join us for a retirement celebration honoring … 8 million metric tons of carbon. A little unconventional, sure. But so was the Chevrolet carbon-reduction initiative.

Back on Nov. 18, 2010, Chevrolet set a bold goal – engage communities across America in preventing 8M metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the earth’s atmosphere. We knew it would take about five years and upwards of about $40 million, but driving a cleaner energy future is something we believe in.

It was, on many fronts, unprecedented. Bob Sheppard, corporate sustainability consultant and one of the program’s advisors remarked, “I don’t think I will see again in my professional lifetime the kind of leadership – the sheer scale, the investment, commitments, diversity of team – that Chevrolet pioneered with its carbon-reduction initiative.”

We collaborated with hundreds of climate stakeholders and supported 38 carbon-reducing projects in 29 states that have a positive impact on people and the communities in which they live and work, from helping a landfill heat a hospital with methane gas to helping truckers avoid idling their engines at rest stops.

And for the icing on the cake, as promised, we retired the carbon credits to benefit the climate versus using them to offset emissions of vehicles or operations.

For even longer-lasting impact, we expanded the carbon market by pioneering brand-new methodologies enabling college campuses to draw on a new source of funding – carbon credits from the voluntary carbon market – to help further their large-scale energy efficiency, and ultimately their carbon neutrality efforts. Along the way we co-created a self-sustaining conversation with students via #CleanEnergyU.

Why did we do this? It signals where we view our future is headed. Cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Spark EV go hand-in-hand with a clean-energy and efficient infrastructure; a clean grid helps advance their low-carbon profile. Ultimately, Chevrolet sought out ingenious people finding new ways to reduce their footprint.

As this initiative comes to a close, here are some of the key takeaways from the five-year program.

1. Articulate the community benefits and relevance. It’s hard to talk about carbon reduction without people’s eyes glazing over, so we translated the reductions into things like investments, job creation, quality of life and innovation. The challenge was attracting people’s attention to an issue that may not hit their wallet or immediately impact their quality of life.

2. The voluntary carbon market is alive and well—but there hasn’t been much growth in new and innovative ways to monetize carbon reductions to achieve carbon credits. We thought we’d find a lot of opportunities to support large-scale energy efficiency projects, but we ended up having to pioneer our own path.

3. Creating a carbon-reduction methodology is like making sausage. It was messy, it took a lot longer than expected, and there are a lot of ingredients needed to make it come out right. But I’m glad we did it and we learned a lot along the way. It takes a diversity of expertise and an army of people with a real commitment to see it through. We couldn’t have done it without partners such as Bonneville Environmental Foundation; Climate Neutral Business Network; Verified Carbon Standard; DNV GL; the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, managed by Second Nature; the U.S. Green Building Council; and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

4. Engage, listen and collaborate. The advice and guidance from our diverse group of external advisors helped us take this initiative into exciting places we didn’t expect when we set out. Regardless of how big or small your project is, proactively seeking other perspectives is valuable.

5. It starts and ends with efficiency. At the time, and it’s still relevant today, a brand like Chevrolet that produces vehicles that emit greenhouse gas emissions really can’t credibly achieve carbon neutrality. That’s why we didn’t want this to be an offsetting program. This was voluntary and we were retiring the credits to benefit the environment. The initiative enabled Chevrolet to take its progress — from fuel-efficient vehicles to increasing the efficiency of the plants that build them — a step further. There’s a broader acceptance now that these credits can be used in part to achieve carbon neutrality, but they can’t be the only solution. You can’t buy your way to carbon neutrality through carbon credits.

6. Leave a legacy. We didn’t start thinking about a legacy when we embarked on this project, but as we progressed, we knew it was important to set the stage for continued investment and collaboration. We found a steward – Second Nature – to take our new college methodology forward to ensure other companies knew they could contribute and more campuses could translate their energy efficiency efforts into new revenue.

7. Empower students. One of our goals was to engage people in addressing climate change and carbon reduction, and students are an important yet underrepresented voice in this conversation. They’re effective in driving change from a campus perspective, but #CleanEnergyU helped amplify their voice and provide a platform to engage with business and climate experts.

8. Finding new roads isn’t always easy. We give a lot of credit to the 11 colleges that we partnered with on the new methodology. They were true trailblazers who were open to a new opportunity and became a catalyst for change in their departments and institutions. They’ve set the example and showed others what can be accomplished.

9. We still need to mainstream carbon. There are shining examples, but more people need to  view climate change as a critical issue. People need to understand how their daily actions result in carbon emissions and how that impacts climate change. The projects we invested in are indicators of where reductions can be made – energy efficiency in homes and on college campuses, and expansion of renewable energy sources. It doesn’t need to be a big investment —everyday actions add up and, if everyone is taking actions, the impact will be big.

10. Be bold. It’s better to be big and bold and only get halfway there than to set reasonable targets and make them. You’ll be further ahead. We made a pretty audacious commitment that many didn’t think we could achieve, but we persevered.  

11. If GM can do it, you can do it. Addressing climate change makes business sense from a top-line growth, bottom-line savings and reduced risk perspective. Sign the Ceres BICEP Climate Declaration. Participate in CDP. Take part in the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge. We all have a stake and there are opportunities for you to seize. You’re probably already doing something that you can leverage. This project helped us internally get to where we are today and take more public positions on climate-related issues and policies.

David Tulauskas is director of sustainability at General Motors. Follow him on Twitter @davidtulauskas.

CATEGORY: Environment