Photo: AP

Earth Day is nearly upon us, which means it is time for brands to declare their love for Mother Earth in corporate reports and Medium posts. On Thursday, Lyft did the latter, announcing the company was buying carbon offsets for all rides.

And thus, a thousand uncritical tech stories were launched. As with Apple’s 100 percent renewable announcement last week, Lyft’s proclamation that all of its rides will now be carbon neutral is a somewhat good thing, but it’s also worthy of your skepticism.

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The announcement was light on specifics with the company saying it would make a “multi-million dollar investment” in offsets through sustainability company 3Degrees, and that in the first year, it anticipated “offsetting over a million metric tons of carbon.”

On the positive side of the ledger, Lyft, a company that runs mainly on fossil fuel-powered cars, is basically saying, “yo, climate change is real.” That’s no small victory in this day and age. Buying offsets also means trees will get planted, windmills will get installed, and cow manure will be turned into biogas. Those projects can stimulate the local economy, and as Tyndall Center climate scientist Kevin Anderson wrote in a 2012 Nature commentary, potentially be transformative for developing countries (Lyft’s projects will all be U.S.-based, though, according to City Lab).

You aren’t going to get that from Uber.

But Anderson’s pat on the back comes in the middle of a scathing critique of offsets as useless feel goodery masquerading as a climate solution. In the case of Lyft, that’s a particularly potent argument.

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“Lyft’s participation in a voluntary carbon offset program at this large scale is admirable, but the impact may not be as large as the announcement makes it sound,” Zak Accuardi, a senior program associate at the foundation TransitCenter, told Earther.

Lyft is part of the ride hailing explosion that’s overrun cities around the world. Not only have companies like Lyft, Uber, and Via taken business from taxis, they’ve increased the number of miles driven. A recent analysis found that in New York alone, ride hailing apps added “600 million miles of vehicular travel to the city’s roadway network” from 2013-16, even after factoring out all the rides they took from cabs and personal automobiles.

Six hundred million miles. That’s enough to circle the Earth at the equator more than 24,000 times. Extrapolated out, it translates to 550 million pounds of extra greenhouse gases chucked into the atmosphere, according to the Conservation Law Fund.

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“Of the potential transportation actions assessed by Project Drawdown—an organization run by Lyft’s environmental advisor Paul Hawken—ride-hailing offers the smallest potential for reducing our carbon footprint, globally,” Accuardi said. (He also told Earther he was a fellow on Hawken’s project, but did not participate in the analysis).

Ironically, Lyft’s carbon offset plan could be a giant virtue signal that lets people feel like they can ride guilt-free, making matters even worse. Riders who would normally walk, hop a Citi Bike, or public transit could instead take a Lyft. Walking and biking are, of course, already carbon-free forms of transport, while public transit is much less carbon intensive than taking a car, particularly if lots of people use it.

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What’s more, carbon offsets don’t account for the increase in local air pollution caused by gas-powered cars, which adversely affects the poor and people of color the most, or for drivers barely scraping by in the gig economy. And let’s bring it home with the reality that offsets often fail to account for the long timeframes of climate change.

Carbon emissions spend more than 100 years warming the atmosphere. Any offset has to counteract those effects, while not leading to more emissions down the road. That’s an incredibly tall order.

“For an offset project to be genuinely low-carbon, it must guarantee that it does not stimulate further emissions over the subsequent century,” Anderson wrote in that 2012 Nature piece. “To do so would presume powers of prediction that could have foreseen the Internet and low-cost airlines following from Marconi’s 1901 telegraph and the Wright brothers’ 1903 maiden flight.”

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All of this is to say Lyft’s effort is a nice, if misguided, attempt to improve a deeply flawed system that prioritizes sprawl over density, doesn’t price carbon, and in the U.S. at least, doesn’t acknowledge how woefully unprepared we are for climate change. 

Lyft alone isn’t going to fix that system, but it can do more to be a part of a meaningful shift. The company, to its credit, has lobbied for congestion pricing in New York, which proponents argue would reduce gridlock by setting up tolls for travel downtown. Lyft is also part of We Are Still In, a group of states, cities, and companies that plan to meet the U.S. Paris Agreement commitment, even though Donald Trump has announced his plan to pull the U.S. out of the pact.

But at the end of the day, addressing climate change means taking far fewer rides in gas-powered cars, something that’s currently at odds with any ride-sharing company’s business model. And the clock is ticking.

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