Yet the same academics also found that the biggest users of ride-hailing apps were millennials and urbanites—two of the demographics most concerned about climate change, according to public polling. Young, city-dwelling progressives were seemingly voting with their left hand and calling an Uber with their right.
Going carbon-neutral somewhat relieves at least one of those tensions. Now, taking a Lyft won’t be quite as degrading to the environment as it once was—even if it would still be more climate-friendly for the Lyft-using Millennials to take public transit.
But there’s a second way of understanding the announcement: as a new front in Lyft’s ongoing war with its biggest competitor. Lyft has long marketed itself as a kinder, gentler alternative to Uber. Last year, the strategy paid off: As Uber limped through a series of scandals, Lyft came to control a third of the U.S. ride-sharing market, according to Bloomberg News. But now Uber has softened its own image as well, hiring a new chief executive who has taken a more apologetic, less antagonistic approach to leadership and public relations.
In this light, going carbon-neutral is a savvy move for Lyft. Its business depends, in part, on its holding the moral high ground.
Of course, if Lyft really is successful at preventing carbon pollution, it will hardly matter why it decided to do so in the first place. Transportation is the leading cause of greenhouse-gas pollution in the United States, responsible for just over a quarter of national annual emissions. Even as other parts of the economy have adopted cleaner fuels, carbon pollution from transportation—cars, trains, planes, and ships—has increased since the end of the Great Recession.
Cars in particular have proven a surprisingly stubborn problem. In 2017, Americans drove more miles than they did in previous years, and their cars did not become significantly more fuel-efficient. Those two factors together led to a “modest emissions increase” from cars alone, according to the Rhodium Group, an energy-analysis company.
Worldwide, carbon pollution from all sources increased in 2017. That’s a discouraging sign for people concerned about the climate, as it ends a three-year period when emissions had stayed flat. The International Energy Agency reported that American and European consumers helped to drive the emissions increase by buying larger (and more polluting) SUVs. Some of those SUVS no doubt became Lyfts.
No corporate initiative will prevent the worst ravages of global warming. The problem is simply too large, spanning too many sectors of the economy, for any set of companies to make the necessary changes.
Even today, under President Trump, the U.S. government still guides energy markets. It still funds energy R&D projects and mandates energy-efficiency programs. It just isn’t guiding them, at the moment, toward fighting climate change. Early this month, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would weaken the landmark gasoline-efficiency rules adopted by the Obama administration. It’s unclear how deep these cuts could be, but they might effectively flatline the fuel efficiency of American-made cars in the early half of the next decade.
Whether it’s in five years or 15, the government will probably eventually be forced to guide these markets in the other direction. In the meantime, many of those new, less efficient cars will become Lyfts. Many more will become Ubers. And in the meantime, if the ride-hailing business begins to (correctly) see the climate as its responsibility, well, it can only help. Corporations can’t fix climate change, but they can make the future a little bit of a smoother ride.