Why do automakers support climate rollbacks?

ShutterstockTrong Nguyen

In a press release for its annual sustainability report, Ford Motor Company quoted Executive Chairman Bill Ford: "We know climate change is real and a critical threat, and we will continue to work with leaders around the world in support of ambitious global greenhouse gas reduction targets."

Similarly, in an October 2016 press release, GM wrote, "The company believes there’s economic opportunity as well as a social imperative in lowering emissions and addressing climate change."

Given their public positioning, one would think that Ford and GM would be among the first to defend the one key climate action available to automakers: fuel efficiency standards.

Not so fast.

This week, the Trump administration rejected Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency, or CAFE, standards adopted by the Obama administration. In doing so, the administration had the full support of Ford, as well as GM, VW and even Prius manufacturer Toyota, among others. Trade groups these automakers fund, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, long have asked the administration to put vehicle fuel efficiency standards on hold.

They are questioning climate science as well. In a submission to the administrative record, the alliance selectively cited quotes from articles on climate modeling in order to cast doubt on the science; the actual authors of those articles soundly have refuted the alliance’s misrepresentations. When asked for comment on their position in light of the alliance’s submissions, automakers either refused to respond or referred the reporters to the alliance.

Truth is, Ford and GM matter very much in the climate battle. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and CAFE standards are critical to controlling those emissions. The Obama-era regulations would have resulted in the largest U.S. reduction in global warming emissions from a single policy, bringing America’s average fuel economy to 40 mpg by 2020 and 50 mpg by 2025. The weakened standards will result in $4,000 in additional fuel costs over the life of an average new vehicle — basically a hidden tax on consumers and businesses that does no good, only harm.

A recent University of Michigan study underscored the importance of preserving (or strengthening) the standards. It found that additional reductions in the automotive sector beyond those provided under Obama would be necessary at the latest by 2025 in order to meet climate goals and avoid increased costs. And, as demonstrated in analysis by the nonprofit Ceres, robust standards will have long-term benefits for the industry; such standards provide market certainty, spur innovation and make U.S. auto manufacturers and suppliers more competitive in a global market that demands increasingly cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks. (Both Ford and GM are Ceres members.)

Is this how Ford works "with leaders around the world in support of ambitious global greenhouse gas reduction targets"? And if the company could so flagrantly mislead in its sustainability report, what are shareholders to make of legally binding statements in its fiscal reporting? Would it not be more responsible for Ford to forthrightly say that it doesn't support action on climate? Last, how does GM square its position with its statement that the company "believes in being an advocate for climate change action and awareness"?

We’re hearing a lot from big automakers such as Toyota, Ford and GM about their concern for the environment, most recently during the Olympics, when Toyota released what appeared to be the first auto industry climate ad.

If they really care, they should stop trying to undermine our most important climate policy. Our future depends on it.

So does their integrity.