This article series is sponsored by 3Degrees and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
It’s been over a year since Lyft made all rides on its platform carbon neutral. The commitment is one of the top 10 voluntary carbon purchase projects anywhere, having offset over a million metric tons of carbon in its first year alone. But the ride-sharing giant says it’s only the start of a long-term journey to decarbonize its operations and positively influence the way transportation works in cities.
Founders John Zimmer and Logan Green say they started Lyft with the intention of transforming the transportation industry for the better, starting with one of the most problematic modes of travel: personal vehicles. Before they met, Logan Green organized a carpooling program on his college campus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, while John Zimmer wondered how sharing rides could improve our lives in cities.
Fast forward to today, and Lyft is a public company and its platform facilitates more than 1 million rides every day. But there’s a limit to how much impact ride-sharing can have on the broader transportation industry: In a major city like Los Angeles, for example, ride-sharing only accounts for 3 percent of miles traveled.
“If we look out on the world today, there are a lot of emissions that come from our transportation system. In fact, it is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions [in the U.S.], even bigger than electricity,” said Sam Arons, director of sustainability at Lyft. “So we feel a moral [duty] to take responsibility for emissions and to help to move the transportation system in a direction that eventually, we believe, will be emissions-free.”
Becoming carbon neutral is the first step in that process, Arons told us. The carbon offsets chosen with the help of renewable energy and climate solutions partner 3Degrees don’t just neutralize the emissions of rides. They also magnify the impact Lyft is making on transportation and in its communities.
Over the first year of the program, a large percentage of Lyft’s investment supported projects that reduce emissions in the transportation sector, including automotive manufacturing and waste oil recycling.
One such project with Meridian Magnesium helps to reduce the emissions associated with manufacturing auto parts. Meridian makes parts from lightweight magnesium alloys, which are stronger and lighter than traditional materials such as steel, allowing companies to build lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. Since 2001, the company has been working to cut the emissions intensity of manufacturing at its plant in Eaton Rapids, Michigan. Most recently, this effort culminated in a project to reduce sulfur hexafluoride emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas that has a global warming impact 22,800 times greater than CO2.
The project required an upfront capital investment by Meridian, as well as a change in its manufacturing process. Though the new process cuts emissions, it is more expensive and less efficient than what Meridian used previously. Carbon offset sales from companies like Lyft are the only source of revenue for this project and allowed it to move forward.
Lyft already powers its offices with renewable energy. And earlier this year, the company launched a program in Seattle and Atlanta to make hundreds of electric vehicles available for drivers to rent. It also added a ‘Green Mode’ to its app in Seattle and Portland, allowing riders to request a hybrid or electric vehicle.
Expanding the program will be challenging, though. Electric vehicle batteries are not cheap, and current government incentives and grants are designed more for individuals than for companies, Arons explained. Lyft says it is working with local, state and federal policymakers to make these programs more accessible to industries that use fleets of vehicles, because fleet vehicles can drive three to five times more miles per year than personal vehicles, and thus reduce up to five times as many emissions.
The company is also working with public transit agencies to get people on buses and trains when possible. Not to mention that Lyft is the largest bike-share operator in the U.S., powering bike-share systems in major cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., and the company continues to invest in bikes and scooters to offer customers more low-emissions options. “At the end of the day, we have to eliminate our emissions altogether,” Arons told us.
“We’re trying to help get more people into fewer cars—or even out of cars entirely and into more appropriate modes of transportation—and reclaim cities from cars and give them back to people,” he continued. "We think that if we can help to remove the need for personal car ownership, we can start to see a reduction in the need for so many parking spaces, a reduction in the need for so many lanes. We believe that, over time, we can take these public spaces back from cars—turn those parking lots into parks, widen sidewalks and improve street life.”
Through its Lyft City Works initiative launched in March, the company committed to invest a minimum of $50 million a year (or 1 percent of profits, whichever is greater) in grassroots transportation initiatives that improve quality of life in cities. Its first investments will support civic groups in Los Angeles that focus on developing transportation infrastructure, particularly in underserved neighborhoods.
In the meantime, though, the company expects its carbon neutrality commitment to offset more than 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually while supporting projects that reduce the carbon intensity of transportation.
“In the future all vehicles will operate with clean energy. But climate change is not waiting,” founders Zimmer and Green wrote on Medium. “This action is not the full solution, but a real step forward.”
Images courtesy of Lyft
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.