Planet Forward at Ford | The race towards carbon neutrality: The impact of Ford’s “living roof”

Ford Motor Company’s “living roof.”
Ford Motor Company’s “living roof.”

Courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

Related Topics:
Architecture, Business & Economics, Climate, Transportation

Atop the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan, a vibrant 10.4-acre “living roof” stretches across an otherwise cloudy horizon, made up of thousands of tiny succulents. Birds, insects, and pollinators flock to the rooftop, while hundreds of factory workers assemble trucks in the building below. 

The size of eight football fields, Ford’s green roof is one of the largest in the world. Every year, it collects and filters rainfall and, according to the Henry Ford Museum, improves air quality in the building’s vicinity by up to 40%. Notably, the Museum reports the rooftop also reduces the building’s energy footprint by 7%, inching the company closer to its carbon neutrality goal.

Installed more than 20 years ago now, company leaders at the time were quoted in press releases as saying the project was “not environmental philanthropy” but “sound business,” and, in the Press & Guide, “living proof of Ford’s ongoing commitment to being an environmentally conscious corporate citizen.” The major project has since been acknowledged for helping kick off the green roof industry in North America.Their living roof is just one project in Ford’s efforts to decarbonize, which are part of a larger national movement toward carbon responsibility and environmental and social governance, or “ESG,” in corporate spheres. Ford is currently pursuing a goal of sourcing 100% carbon-free electricity for their global manufacturing operations by 2035.

A large rooftop with a small footprint?

Ford employs over 177,000 workers globally and operates facilities in more than a dozen countries around the world. According to a Ford 2024 Integrated Sustainability and Financial Report, about 1% of Ford’s total CO2 emissions come from operations whereas the vast majority of them result from tailpipe emissions as well as “energy production and consumption during vehicle use.”

Tailpipe and energy production during use fall under the definition of Scope 3 emissions, which are the kind that are indirectly linked to a company’s activities, such as those that result from a company’s product after it is purchased.

According to the 2024 Ford report, in 2023 Ford’s Scope 3 emissions totaled 384,119,775 metric tons. Given that total, a green roof would redress a fraction of a percent of Ford’s total emissions.

Manufacturing floor of Ford pickup trucks in Dearborn. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

The living rooftop’s meadow was installed at a cost of $15 million. “It was a risk. And it paid off,” added Douglas Plond, senior manager of the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. In his view, the rooftop’s value comes from its ample community benefits. 

“I think we see over 100,000 people come through this facility per year. So, we’ve sparked the interest of someone — at least one person — to see all the green initiatives that have gone on here at Ford Motor Company. […] Somebody may have gone home and said ‘Well, I’m gonna try doing this at home,” Plond said.

The “Living Roof” in February 2024. (Aaron Dye)

Looking at the whole picture

Ford, in addition to its emissions goals, aims to use only locally sourced clean energy in its manufacturing plants by 2035. Other automakers like BMW and General Motors have also announced sustainability ambitions, including carbon neutrality goals. Automakers like Subaru have focused on greening their plants, such as Indiana’s Subaru SIA factory which produces zero landfill waste and is the only U.S. auto factory to be declared a natural habitat. 

Still, back in Dearborn, critics remain skeptical toward greening a plant that produces F-150s. Among them is Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s climate change program. “Whatever they did to the plant is marvelous, but if they’re producing pickup trucks that pollute too much, what are they accomplishing?” Becker asked, as quoted in Index Project.

All-new, all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning revealed at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, on May 19, 2021. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

While the emissions of Ford vehicles per kilometer driven have decreased 6% since 2019, according to Ford’s 2024 Integrated Sustainability and Financial Report, “slower than expected demand,” in EV’s will require flexibility on Ford’s part as they reach for carbon neutrality. Recent market setbacks have curbed EV demand and prompted Ford to shut down an F-150 Lightning production shift at the Dearborn factory. 

Slowing growth of EV sales across ca, weakened carbon reporting rules from the SEC, and difficulties decarbonizing EV supply chains raise ongoing questions about the future picture of sustainability. 

A snapshot of Ford’s sustainability goals. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

On the other hand, there are other initiatives at Ford worthy of public attention: 

In 2022, for example, Ford made the largest clean power purchase agreement in history, right in Michigan. The contract with DTE Energy exceeds any other renewable energy purchase from a utility in the United States— including those by large tech companies. A press release by the energy company details that by 2025, all of Ford’s purchased electricity for vehicle manufacturing in Michigan will be carbon-free, and Ford will avoid close to 600,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.  

“I think one of the things that we’ve focused on in the last few years, in particular, is the sourcing of the energy to run the plant. That’s been the biggest thing — trying to make contracts with [electricity suppliers] where our clients are located. […] And I think that that’s probably moving the needle the most,” said Alyssa Werthman, Ford’s environmental sustainability manager.

Essentially, whenever a company like Ford buys more renewable power than they need, they can supply not only their factories but several of their major suppliers, and millions of homes. Artealia Gilliard, Environmental Leadership & Sustainability at Ford, notes that these agreements both strengthen the grid and “create that push and pull in the market.”

Ford F-150 Lightning as pictured in 2022 Integrated Sustainability and Financial Report. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

As a symbol of sustainable commitments, Ford’s Living Rooftop is in many ways intended to compliment the company’s even more concrete strategies to leverage its corporate power for good: buying into power purchase agreements, persistently improving the accessibility and recyclability of electric vehicles, and directing all suppliers towards sustainability. 

“We also write the requirement for our suppliers to establish science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets and action plans to support carbon neutrality no later than 2050 globally into our Supplier Code of Conduct,” Werthman said.

According to Gilliard, it is these initiatives that “[drive] the suppliers to do exactly as we’re doing, which is purchase carbon-free electricity. It drives them to invest in the grid where they’re pulling from — or create their own.”

View of the Ford Rouge Complex and rooftop. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

The bottom line

The Living Rooftop could have valuable signaling power as a “living pledge” toward more robust Scope 3 decarbonization at Ford.

Even amid EV sales challenges, recent progress is promising. Ford Motor Company received an “A” rating in a 2023 Carbon Disclosure Project report and is reportedly on track to meet its 2050 carbon neutrality goal.

Though the direct impact of the roof may be small, the greenery above the production lines may continue to be a useful living reminder of this commitment.

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