What are Environmental concerns?

2008 Ford F-150 pickup trucksFord manufactures the F150, one of America?s most popular full-size pickup trucks. Its 5.6 litre engine takes an average of 17 miles to guzzle a gallon of petrol. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP

The second largest car manufacturer in the US says it is embracing sustainable values and cutting carbon emissions but, as Felicity Carus reports, its job is still to make cars

In a country where 24 miles per gallon is regarded as good car mileage, the benchmark for environmental improvements is set pretty low for the Ford Motor Company.

But the company that jump-started the auto industry, which now accounts for 27% of US emissions, is pushing for pole position as the greenest car company in the country.

Executive chairman William 'Bill' Clay Ford Jnr describes himself as a "lifelong environmentalist" and claims to have cultivated genuine sustainable values that have taken root throughout the company, which was founded by his great grandfather.

Niemann says he would shy away from using the term "environmentalist".

"I would not ever use the term environmentalist because I believe in a balanced approach, " he says. "There is a balance between human need, environmental concerns and economic balance. If you're doing things that are environmentally beneficial that puts you out of business that's good for a very short term. In the end that hurts people.

"I don't know if there's such a term, but I'm a sustainable-ist."

Balancing the needs of the planet and car company is certainly complex for a manufacturer that employs 164, 000 people to make around 5m cars a year. Ford claims to be making progress on greening its fleet through the product sustainability index (PSI) which aims to use more sustainable products, such as recycled materials and soy-based seating foam. It has reduced water use — mostly associated with cooling and painting — per vehicle by 49% from 2000 to 2010.

Ford also recently announced a survey of energy use and carbon emissions by its 128 global suppliers.

But what's under Ford's own bonnet? The second largest car manufacturer in the US managed to reduce facility CO2 emissions from 5.4m tonnes in 2008 to 5.3m tonnes last year. Emissions per vehicle have also been reduced a fraction from 1.09 tonnes to 1.01 tonnes.

Ford manufactures the F150, one of America's most popular full-size pickup trucks. The F150's 5.6 litre engine takes an average of 17 miles to guzzle a gallon of petrol.

"It's a commitment to the fact that climate change is real and that the auto industry was part of the problem and can be part of the solution, " says Niemann. "In 2008, Ford formally acknowledged that CO2e, using a science-based approach, needs to be stabilised within the atmosphere at or below 450ppm by 2050. So we made some commitments to keep our reductions to change the curve.

"We have set out for the past three to four years to be a fuel economy leader. That was not a performance attribute were Ford sought leadership previously. Now we're looking to be leaders in every sector where we compete."

Ford's fleet-wide average fuel economy is now 26.9mpg. It's an improvement that's way below the average of around 50mpg in the UK. But the competition is about to get much fiercer under new regulations introduced by the Obama administration this year. Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards require an overall target of a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Development of electric vehicles are going to help car makers meet these targets. The electric vehicle (EV) is not an unusual concept Ford, whose headquarters are based in Dearborn, Michigan. Thomas Edison worked with his friend Henry Ford on electric cars, before their designs became an early casualty of the battery "range anxiety" that afflicts EV makers today.

"Henry didn't believe that the internal combustion engine would be the be all and end all. He didn't think the only thing to propel the US car industry would be gasoline, " says Niemann.

Ford has just started taking orders in Europe for its first all-electric model, the extremely popular Focus — a road-testing strategy to gauge consumer appetite before launch in the US.

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