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GM Takes the Long View on Emissions Reductions: Q&A with Dane Parker

Dane Parker, chief sustainability officer for GMTwo years ago GM set course for emission reduction by reducing its absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 31% by 2030 compared to a 2010 baseline. The company had met its 2020 goal early, and established the new target to stay consistent with the Science Based Target initiative’s methodology.

Improving energy, water, and waste intensity has been part of GM’s strategy for more than 20 years, notes chief sustainability officer Dane Parker, who was vice president of sustainable workplaces prior to being appointed to the new role in January.

“Our energy and environmental footprint is a part of how we run the business at a high level,” he said.

As covid-19 forced General Motors to temporarily suspend its manufacturing operations in North America, Parker spoke with Environment + Energy Leader about how the automaker reduced Scope 1 and 2 emissions — and where he sees the company’s environmental strategy headed in the future.

What steps have you taken to lower emissions, starting with Scope 1?

We’ve been an Energy Star partner for 20 years and we have a team of dedicated energy engineers embedded in facilities around the world. They’re a combination of our employees and the employees of our partners. We do “treasure hunts” on a regular basis looking for opportunities for continuous improvement.

We’ve done major re-lamping projects, installing LED lighting and even replacing older LEDs with new LED lighting. We’ve done a lot of work on motors and variable frequency drives on motors with our heating systems.

We put a big emphasis on designing efficiency into built projects, things like natural lighting, natural heating, and heat capture as well as processed water reuse.

And for Scope 2?

We have a four-pillar strategy. The first is efficiency. The greenest electron is the one you don’t use. Right now we’re saving over $100 million a year on energy costs because of the efficiency measures we put in place.

The second is sourcing renewables. We’ve had a combination of power purchase agreements and green tariffs, working with utility providers to source renewable energy as well as onsite renewable energy.

The third pillar is addressing intermittency. We’re testing using EV batteries to help utilities balance supply and demand, and green their grids. The fourth is influencing policy to speed up the availability of renewable energy.

How have you been saving more than $100 million a year on energy costs?

A lot of this is investments in proven technologies. Lighting is a great opportunity for us. We’ve installed several hundred thousand LEDs. That technology has improved and the costs have come down significantly. Most of our lighting projects have paybacks of two years or less.

Things like natural lighting, where we’ve built facilities with natural lighting to begin with, have reduced the need for lighting in many areas.

Simply eliminating waste. It’s amazing the opportunities you find to eliminate waste in compressed air systems. And scale the systems. You can right-size the equipment and only run what you need, when you need to run it. We’ve replaced single large compressors with multiple small compressors.

Then, as we look at equipment, improving the efficiency of the electric motors and the systems that run conveyors, many of the fans, and all the air handling equipment and pumps in our facilities.

What’s been the biggest challenge around all of this so far?

One of the biggest challenges was getting broad engagement across the organization. We addressed that with goals and metrics that were part of the business: built in and visible. We had to make sure we had robust systems to track the data and make the data available. Finding and understanding efficiency opportunities early on was important as well. As we did that, we found that people really got engaged.

Speaking of challenges, what does covid-19 mean for GM’s environmental footprint?

The challenges we are facing globally from the covid-19 pandemic will require that we come together across geopolitical lines to manage in crisis and come back strong thereafter. In some ways, this is the same type of response we need for actions combating climate change.

I am optimistic that the learnings we gain working together against the pandemic can help guide collaborative actions on climate. I also believe that we will all have a greater appreciation for human health and wellbeing, and recognize the importance of climate action for those areas in the future.

Any advice for fellow automotive industry leaders who are working on emissions?

We all need to take a longer view. Some of the things that will happen in the immediate term make it difficult to look past today or tomorrow or next month. But the longer of a view we can take, the better we’ll do, and the smarter the decisions we’ll make.

Many large organizations have been working on improvements. Our collective challenge today is to engage more of our companies in these efforts and to make it broader and innovative from the ground up rather than top-down prescriptive.

To get where we need to go, we’ll need the mindpower of a lot more people. In difficult times, continuing to give them something to aspire to and feel good about working on is important. The environment is one of those things.

Where do you see GM’s environmental footprint headed in the next 10 years?

The focus shifts to our products and supply chain. We’ve made some wonderful progress on our operational footprint, but a couple years ago we came out with the vision for a zero-emissions future. For that to become reality, we need electric vehicles powered by a green grid. The vehicles need to be made with much more sustainable content. We’ll work toward having a circular economy in products that drastically reduce their own footprints.

In five years, we have a goal of selling a million electric vehicles a year. So if we can combine that effort with the greening of the grid, where those electric vehicles are charged on 100% renewable energy and the content in them is part of a circular economy, we’ll be on a really exciting path toward true sustainability.

What does that prospect mean to you?

This transition to electric vehicles is exciting and we need it to happen collectively. To me, this is akin to the transition from horses and buggies to automobiles.

Although some of the things that are happening now in the immediate term are — and will be — distracting and difficult, the long-term path is still clear.

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