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Uber is prodding its riders to choose hybrid or electric—but its new feature masks the dark truth about ride-sharing

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Uber announced a new app feature that will give riders facts and numbers on the carbon dioxide emissions they reduce if they opt for drivers with electric or hybrid vehicles.

The new feature will show riders an estimate of emissions they’re saving when they ride Uber Comfort Electric or Uber Green, which are hybrid or electric vehicles, by computing CO2 savings relative to trips of the same distance via UberX or Uber Comfort. 

Environmentally, ride-sharing can have mixed effects—but it’s been one of the more climate-conscious modes of travel for people finding balance between private and public transportation. 

Uber, which launched in 2009, popularized ride-sharing platforms all over the world with perks like improved transportation availability in remote areas and, as most people who’ve missed their morning train into work can attest, convenience. 

According to Yahoo News, Uber has about 60,000 electric vehicles operating in any given month, and in North America about one in 20 miles are driven in an electric car. 

Uber plans to transition hundreds of thousands of drivers to electric vehicles and set a goal for electric vehicles to account for 50% of miles traveled in key European cities by 2025. By 2040, the company plans to deliver 100% of rides in zero-emission vehicles. 

But ride-sharing is not as environmentally friendly as one might think. According to a 2020 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, ride-sharing trips are producing about 69% more emissions than the types of trips they replace. For example, if you take an Uber to the grocery store, and that car heads off to pick up another passenger and take them to a different destination, the entire trip for that Uber car is releasing more emissions than if both people in this example used their own cars. This is known as “deadheading,” and it generally produces about 50% more emissions than the same trip in a privately owned car.

A few reasons help explain why ride-sharing isn’t all that great for the environment, such as how it contributes to more traffic congestion; the platform’s tendency to displace other lower-carbon transportation modes like biking or public transit; and the aforementioned “deadheading.” 

On the other hand, ride-sharing can help people forgo car ownership (although studies say it’s by a minimal amount) and reduce traffic congestion by ride-splitting—and it also appears to complement and encourage rail travel.

The concept of an individual carbon footprint has some issues, the biggest being accuracy and reliability. Greenhouse gas emissions are categorized by three scopes: direct emissions, indirect emissions, and value chain (a.k.a. total) emissions. All are difficult to measure, but Scope 3 emissions particularly so. A Harvard Law School study found the “measurement, target-setting, and management of Scope 3 is a mess,” and the “wide range of uncertainty” in these emissions can make an organization’s numbers “absurdly off.”

Measuring a customer’s carbon footprint is not new to big companies, but in the past, they have used these measurements to blame customers rather than motivate them to use their services. Exxon Mobil, for instance, was called out for trying to put the brunt of environmental responsibility onto individuals through carbon footprint measurements starting around 2005. Carbon footprints have been slammed as a way for companies to avoid responsibility for their emissions by making the public feel responsible for them, yet reports have shown just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of global greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Recently, though, there’s been a wave of companies attempting to be more transparent about their own emissions. In 2020, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it will measure its gas emissions across all three scopes. Mars, which produces chocolate and pet food, has been measuring its emissions since 2009. HP publishes carbon footprint reports for a list of its products, like laptops and tablets. Still, only about 10% of companies around the world comprehensively measured their emissions in 2022, up just 1% from 2021. 

To see your carbon footprint on Uber when using hybrid or electric vehicles, you just tap a button in the account section of the app called “estimated CO2 saved.” The app will track all of the emissions customers save by opting for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Uber next plans to add the effects of using e-bikes, e-scooters, and UberX Share rides booked on the app, according to Axios.

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