General Motors plans to achieve companywide carbon-neutrality by 2040 and sell only carbon-emissions-free light-duty vehicles by 2035, a major step by America’s biggest automaker to align its future with the climate-change imperatives of the international Paris Agreement and the Biden-Harris administration. 

Thursday’s announcement commits GM, the first U.S. automaker to move into electric vehicles, to a much bigger scope of battery-powered cars and trucks in the U.S. and abroad. By 2025, GM will have 30 battery-powered vehicle models available globally, and those models will make up 40 percent of its vehicle models offered in the U.S. 

Its new 2040 target to zero out carbon emissions from its vehicles and corporate operations shaves a decade off its previous 2050 commitment. That midcentury target is held by fellow U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co. and global competitors including VolkswagenToyota has a goal of a 90 percent reduction by 2050.  

Other automaker carbon-reduction goals include BMW’s pledge to cut vehicle emissions one-third by 2030 and Honda Motor Co.’s plan for electric and fuel-cell vehicles to make up two-thirds of sales by decade’s end.  

“General Motors is joining governments and companies around the globe working to establish a safer, greener and better world,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a prepared statement. “We encourage others to follow suit and make a significant impact on our industry and on the economy as a whole."

A shift in federal clean transportation policy 

GM’s more aggressive goals come as federal policy is starting to align with the most aggressive state-level decarbonization targets for the transportation sector. California Gov. Gavin Newsom this summer pledged to end sales of new gasoline-fueled cars in the state by 2035, after a summer of wildfires driven by climate-change-induced extreme weather. 

The Biden-Harris administration, which has a goal of ending carbon emissions economywide by 2050, has moved quickly to reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of national fuel efficiency standards for road vehicles. 

President Joe Biden on Monday said he would shift all federal vehicle purchases to “clean electric vehicles made right here in America,” and on Wednesday he signed an executive order that, among other things, calls for federal agencies to “procure carbon-pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles.” 

Jennifer Granholm, Biden's pick to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, has a long track record of working with automakers during her years as governor of Michigan. In her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Granholm highlighted the job-creation promise of electric vehicles and clean fuel technologies, while also pledging to work to reduce the impact of the Biden-Harris administration’s policies on jobs in fossil fuel industries. 

EVs made up only 2.6 percent of global automotive and heavy-duty vehicle sales last year, but that share is set to grow to nearly 14 percent by 2030, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Beyond government mandates, EVs are increasingly cost-competitive against fossil-fuel-powered vehicles when lifetime fuel costs are taken into account, although their upfront costs are still higher in most cases. 

GM’s storied EV history

GM’s new shift comes after years of building on its EV development and market experience, ranging from its ill-fated EV1, the first mass-produced modern EV launched and then scrapped in the late 1990s, to the unveiling of its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid sedan in 2010 to compete with Toyota’s popular Prius hybrid. 

While the Volt was discontinued in 2016 and GM stopped building it in 2019, it has since expanded its EV lineup with the Chevy Bolt in 2016 and an expanding line of all-electric models from brands including Cadillac and Hummer. It’s investing $2.2 billion to convert its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to all-electric vehicle production and has centered its entire EV lineup on a common battery platform, dubbed Ultium, being produced in a $2.3 billion plant in Lordstown, Ohio in collaboration with LG Chem. 

GM’s plan won the endorsement of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which previously opposed the automaker’s decision (later reversed) to challenge California’s move to maintain its own fuel economy standards against the reduced standards promulgated by the Trump administration. 

“Overall by 2050, zero-emissions vehicles will deliver more than $100 billion in net societal benefits each year (economic and pollution benefits) and provide $1.6 trillion in cumulative net benefits to Americans by 2050 — almost 10 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product,” EDF President Fred Krupp said in a Thursday statement

A range of zero-emissions transport technologies 

Transportation accounts for roughly two-fifths of U.S. carbon emissions. Reducing that impact will require a massive shift from gasoline- and diesel-powered internal combustion engines to battery-electric vehicles charged with carbon-free energy, or fuel cell vehicles running on hydrogen produced with clean energy. 

GM’s fuel cell ambitions include a partnership announced this week to supply truck maker Navistar with its Hydrotec fuel cells and test them with shipping company J.B. Hunt Transport. A plan to supply fuel cells to and work with upstart clean truck maker Nikola was scaled back late last year. 

More efficient and lower-emissions internal combustion engines powered by hydrocarbon fuels produced using net-zero carbon processes may also provide alternative pathways to reducing transportation emissions for certain applications such as long-haul trucking. 

Infrastructure to charge and fuel zero-emissions vehicles remains a major challenge for expanding their use in the U.S. and abroad. WoodMac predicts a roughly tenfold increase by 2030 in the roughly 3.3 million EV chargers across the U.S., European and Asian markets. California has set a target of 5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030 and 250,000 charging ports in service by 2025, and New York’s goals include 2 million EVs by 2030 and more than 50,000 charging stations by mid-decade. 

GM pledged to work with EDF and other stakeholders to “build out the necessary charging infrastructure and promote consumer acceptance while maintaining high-quality jobs.”

Tailpipe emissions account for 75 percent of GM’s emissions. But the automaker, already among the top 10 U.S. corporate renewable energy buyers, also pledged accelerated targets for decarbonizing the remainder of its operations. Thursday’s announcement committed to sourcing 100 percent renewable energy for its U.S. sites by 2030 and global sites by 2035, five years earlier than previously announced goals.