GE Determined to Show More 'Ecomagination'

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

General Electric Co. yesterday announced a new company-wide environmental initiative, pledging to decrease pollution from its products and to double research and development spending on cleaner technologies.

GE is the biggest addition to a growing list of corporations seeking to be seen as "green," and one of only a few business titans to call for broad action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists say lead to global warming.

"I think [global warming] is something we need to start figuring out and taking proactive steps to make improvements on," GE chairman and chief executive Jeffrey R. Immelt said in a recent interview.

Immelt announced the initiative -- dubbed "ecomagination" in a play on the company's "Imagination at Work" slogan -- yesterday in a speech at George Washington University. The plan calls for increased spending to develop new technologies such as wind-power generation, diesel-electric hybrid locomotives, more-efficient aircraft engines and appliances, and advanced water-treatment systems.

The company pledged to spend $1.5 billion a year on such research by 2010, more than double the $700 million it spends today. Immelt said GE also aims to double the revenue goal over that period for products that provide better environmental performance, to $20 billion a year, and expects more than half of its product revenue to come from such products by 2015.

At the same time, GE promised to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its factory operations 1 percent by 2012. Without the initiative, those emissions were expected to increase 40 percent, the company said.

GE began heavily advertising the initiative yesterday, joining BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and other big companies with ecology-related marketing campaigns. Some environmental advocates, briefed in advance by GE about the plan, praised the effort for having measurable performance targets and for taking sides on the global warming debate.

"We are still quite politically polarized on the issue of climate change in this country," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center for Climate Change. "The fact that a company that size wants to take a very public position to talk about their products in terms of climate change and then, most important of all, to say they want to be part of the policy dialogue, which is very difficult in the United States at this moment, is an act of courage."

Immelt said in the interview that he would like Congress to pass an energy bill that set "clear milestones" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so that companies would know clearly how to invest to achieve them. The bill should include market-based mechanisms to encourage businesses to cut pollution, such as caps with incentives or the ability to trade emissions credits, he said.

Immelt also called for federal incentives to encourage "fuel diversity," the development of a variety of national energy sources, as well as a centralized effort similar to the National Institutes of Health to help develop new environmental technologies that can be used throughout U.S. industry.

Some environmental advocates were skeptical of GE's new green look. "Actions speak louder than words," said Chris Ballantyn, director of the Hudson River Program for the Sierra Club. "When you scratch beneath the public relations surface, I'm afraid they have unfinished business in terms of environmental protection."

GE has clashed with the Sierra Club over cleanup of the Hudson River in upstate New York, which was polluted with PCBs from two GE factories for decades until the late 1970s. The company has resisted a dredging cleanup project, arguing that it would disturb sediments and make the problem worse. But Ballantyn said the company has a pattern of resisting cleanup efforts.

"We'll feel a lot differently about this company and where they're going once they commit to cleaning up the Hudson here," Ballantyn said.

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