Can General Motors Save the Planet?

Today is a watershed day for General Motors — and I’m not talking just about the historic and record-breaking initial public offering marking the company's return to the stock market, and away from majority ownership by the taxpayers.

Today, Chevrolet, the company’s largest brand, announced it would invest $40 million in 8 million tons of carbon offsets — equivalent of roughly a year’s worth of driving for the cars it will sell next year.

It may not be the most innovative move — dozens of other companies have made significant investments in planting trees, building renewable energy plants, weatherizing buildings, and other things that reduce energy and greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s a bold move, both in its size and its timing.

Consider: On a day when one of America’s most iconic companies has come back to life as a public company after going through bankruptcy and government bailout, its first gesture is an environmental one.

Clearly, something different is going on here.

I’ve had a opportunity to track GM’s road to this announcement over the past few months, through the window of my relationship with the consultancy GreenOrder, and through my friend Sue Hall, founder of the Climate Neutral Business Network, which shepherded the project through GM. Last week, I attended a small brainstorming session convened by Hall at GM headquarters in Detroit to look at how the announcement and its messaging were shaping up, and to provide feedback.

And over the weekend, I spoke with Joel Ewanick, GM’s vice president of marketing, the principal driver of this initiative, as he was — well, driving a Chevy Volt from Detroit to Los Angeles, where today’s announcement was made, at the L.A. Auto Show.

First, the basics. GM today stated its intention to “invest $40 million in various clean energy projects throughout America” with the aim of offsetting 8 million metric tons of carbon. The company estimates that the goal equates to the emissions in 2011 from driving the 1.9 million vehicles Chevrolet is expected to sell in the United States over the next year. Chevy will be making the investments through third-party organizations such as the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Ore.

The project began with Ewanick, who joined GM in May by way of Nissan and Hyundai. “When I first started, we began talking about the direction the company was going to take, and fact that there was a real need over the long haul to balance our portfolio,” he told me about 1,700 miles through his 2,300 Detroit-Los Angeles trek, just outside Moab, Utah. “For at least the past 25 years, we’ve been heavily dependent on trucks. We haven’t put as much emphasis on fuel-efficient sedans. And our Japanese and Korean competitors did.” The company had begun to turn the corner, creating the electric-gas Volt, a 42 mpg Cruze, greening up its operations — roughly half of its manufacturing plants worldwide are now zero-waste facilities — and taking other efforts.

“But we said, ‘There must be more we can do.’ We need to show that we’re no longer that company that’s going to send a legion of lobbyists to Washington to say climate isn’t important, because it is. As a company that produces cars, we can go a long way to making people aware of our responsibility, both from a corporate standpoint and an individual standpoint. And that’s where this whole thing started.”

“This whole thing” took a variety of twists and turns. A wide range of bold and audacious ideas were tossed around by Ewanick and other members of the senior leadership. The idea of offsets rose to the top, though the company understood that offsets can be a dicey proposition, for several reasons. One, they’re not that easy to explain to the general public. Two, they’re complicated and controversial as to whether they really reduce emissions. And three, GM’s demand for offsets might be sufficiently large that it could outstrip supply.