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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

General Motors helps drive Biden's climate push with 2035 no-emissions goal

Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors,

Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors, in 2019. Credit: Getty Images / TNS / Bill Pugliano

For political purposes, at least for now, the chances that General Motors will meet its new goal of producing only electric-powered cars and trucks by 2035 may matter little. Either way, President Joe Biden can leverage the announcement in the short term into a public-relations boost for his climate-change policies.

The announcement has big implications not only for other U.S. automakers but the energy industry and the millions of people it currently employs. The president already has directed the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to restore Obama administration fuel-economy rules, and ordered the federal government to purchase all-electric vehicles.

"Efforts like this will help grow our economy and create good-paying union jobs," the White House said in a statement on Thursday. These words are clearly meant to diffuse concerns about the losses of traditional industry jobs such a big technological changeover will likely mean.

Mary Barra, GM's chair and chief executive, has a unique role here. When she met in 2017 with then-President Donald Trump, she encouraged and supported his rollback of pollution-reduction timetables that had been set under predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump later issued Twitter attacks on Barra. One, in 2019, had to do with the workforce. GM then had about 46,000 employees represented by the United Auto Workers, about 2,000 fewer than in 2009, when the company emerged from a bankruptcy reorganization overseen by the federal government.

Last year, Trump complained of delays in the company's planned production of ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients.

After Biden's election, Barra quickly fell into alignment with the Democrat's goals. "President-elect Biden recently said, ‘I believe that we can own the 21st century car market again by moving to electric vehicles.’ We at General Motors couldn’t agree more," she wrote in a letter to environmental leaders.

As noted by the news site Axios, the largest single source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is transportation, which includes cars, trucks and aviation. Last June, the Ford Motor Company announced carbon emissions goals in line with the Paris Climate Accords as it invested in development of its own all-electric vehicles.

Cars without internal combustion engines have appeared on the market, but engineering challenges remain, including limited driving range, high costs, battery issues and a still-sparse infrastructure for charging, experts note. For now, hybrid vehicles, which run on both battery and gasoline, are more popular.

Not all governments, particularly in oil-producing regions, have gone gangbusters behind Biden on behalf of incentives for the changeover. In Texas, in fact, some elected officials want to impose a $200 fee on owners of vehicles such as all-electric Teslas. That would compensate for revenue lost from gasoline taxes, and go to road upkeep.

But the GM announcement marks a show of momentum toward retooling for the not-too-distant future. For the new administration, it represents more meaningful support than a campaign contribution.