Updated on April 20, 2018
Taking a Lyft is about to be a little easier on the planet—and on the conscience.
The ride-hailing service announced that starting this week it will go carbon-neutral. Lyft will actively offset the carbon-dioxide pollution produced by its more than 10 million rides worldwide each week.
In short, this means that taking a Lyft will probably not make global warming worse. Lyft says the program will begin immediately.
Lyft is the first major ride-hailing service to promise carbon-neutrality. Uber, its main competitor and the dominant ride-hailing app worldwide, has not made a similar pledge. A spokeswoman for Uber declined to comment.
This new program is in keeping with Lyft’s earlier climate promises. Last year, it joined “We Are Still In,” the Mike Bloomberg–led coalition of more than 2,700 cities, companies, and universities in the United States who pledge to cut their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Among the other companies following through on that goal: Earlier this month, Apple said that it now uses 100 percent renewable energy to power its offices and data centers. And McDonald’s has pledged to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions 36 percent by 2030, a goal approved by outside scientific groups.
“With great scale comes great responsibility,” said John Zimmer, the cofounder and president of Lyft, in a statement. “We get up every day thinking about how we can continue to have a positive impact on the communities we serve. As we grow, so does the opportunity to increase this impact. Making all rides carbon-neutral is one more step toward our mission of improving people’s lives with the world’s best transportation.”
Lyft has committed to carbon-neutrality at an auspicious time. While it doesn’t release its financial data, Bloomberg News reported last year that the company does not anticipate becoming profitable until at least 2019. In 2017, it had revenue of $1.5 billion after paying its drivers, and it ran a loss of $400 million. A spokesman for Lyft told me that it anticipates spending at least several million dollars to maintain carbon-neutrality in 2018.
It will do so by purchasing carbon credits from 3Degrees, a sustainability company based in San Francisco. For every ton of carbon pollution released by its drivers, Lyft will pay 3Degrees to keep an equivalent amount of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere, either by removing it directly (by planting trees) or preventing its release. In the past, 3Degrees has established new wind farms, captured greenhouse gases from landfills, and planted new tracts of forest with the money from carbon credits.
Lyft says it will calculate the exact amount of carbon pollution to offset by consulting each driver’s mileage and the make and model of their car. It will not purchase credits to offset any pollution created by the manufacture of the car.
Carbon credits, extremely popular a decade ago, have fallen out of favor in the last few years. Energy scholars have questioned whether carbon credits actually fund carbon-removing projects that would not otherwise happen, and in any case they tend to think it’s better just not to emit carbon in the first place than to “offset” it later. 3Degrees says that the credits have been credentialed by three different environmental nonprofits. Green-e, an environmental nonprofit that certifies renewable-energy projects, audits most 3Degrees credits but is not involved in the Lyft-specific project.
More broadly, there are two ways of viewing Lyft’s announcement. First, it might be seen as an attempt to relieve one of the crowning ironies of the ride-hailing industry.
For years, critics have argued that ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft put more cars on the road, worsening both traffic congestion and local air quality. Academics at the University of California have claimed that ride-hailing apps are to blame for an ongoing decline in public-transit use. Given that subways and buses are almost always more environmentally friendly than cars, this represented a kind of secondary blow to the planet.
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.