General Motors returned to the stock market in a big way in November 2010 with its record-breaking initial public offering, promising all the while to remain committed to sustainability. But what exactly can we expect from GM and the environment in the months and years to come?

In addition to the environmental commitments the auto giant has already outlined, GM recently announced a planned $40 million investment in projects that will offset all of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by its Chevrolet brand vehicles in 2011.

Now a publicly-traded company, General Motors is taking bold steps to reinvent itself as a greener automaker. GM's announced investment in carbon offsets comes just as its celebrated electric car, the Chevy Volt, was named 'Green Car of the Year' by the Green Car Journal.

Ambitious Greenhouse Gas Goal

GM estimates that the $40 million it will invest in clean energy projects will offset 8 million metric tons of carbon, equating to a year's worth of expected emissions from the 1.9 million Chevrolet vehicles the company is likely to sell by the end of 2011. The company has not yet determined exactly how it will do this, but according to USA Today, it will be meeting with third-party environmental groups to identify projects like weatherizing public schools.

Joel Ewanik, GM's vice president of marketing, told his hopes of how GM's announcement might be viewed five years from now.

“We’ll look back and say, ‘Finally a car company stepped up and signaled to the world that cars are part of the issue when it comes to CO2.’ And as the car industry grows around the world, that we got together and started doing initiatives like this together. In the end, it can’t be just Chevrolet. A lot of our competitors need to join us on this.”

Previous Environmental Commitments

Most of GM's environmental commitments revolve around creating greener vehicles using more environmentally-friendly materials in sustainable manufacturing facilities. The first automaker to join the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), which supports an alliance between industry and environmental organizations on climate change action, GM has also been working on technology like biofuels, hybrid vehicles, extended range electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric car that can drive up to 40 miles on electricity alone, is GM's first serious foray into this technology since its failed EV1 electric vehicle experiment and has managed to outshine competitors such as the Nissan Leaf.

GM has begun taking a closer look at the materials that go into its vehicles, using recycled, renewable and bio-based materials from renewable resources when possible. That includes headliners made from recycled cardboard scrap in its 2010 Buick Lacrosse, renewable balsa wood floor panels in the 2010 Chevrolet Corvette and fibers from the quick-growing kenaf plant in the headliner of its 2010 Chevrolet Equinox. GM also claims that its vehicles are currently 85 percent recyclable and 95 percent recoverable (by weight), and that it works with the vehicle dismantling industry to ensure that as many components are salvaged as possible.

Finally, GM has formulated a set of environmental principles for its manufacturing practices and tracks each facility's energy use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. GM has reduced its overall energy use globally by more than 40 percent and reduced the amount of water used by all of its facilities by 35 percent between 2005 and 2009. The company also reduced the CO2 emissions from all of its facilities by 39 percent during the same period.

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GM and the environment
What exactly can we expect from GM and the environment in the months and years to come?