The blue skies that replaced smog above city skylines is helping cities to rethink their infrastructure and a key driver for Uber to aggressively tackle the challenge of climate change

10 September, 2020

Everything has changed in 2020, for better or worse. Long periods of lockdowns that have caused economic hardship for millions, putting livelihoods at risk, life on hold and pushed cities and businesses into survival mode, but it has more clearly than ever opened our eyes to the environmental crisis that were only just beginning to fully acknowledge.

The dark clouds of the Covid-19 global health pandemic may have left an indelible mark on society, but it also brought blue skies instead of the heavy smog that sat above city skylines as lockdowns helped to reduce pollution levels and pushed many urban areas to wake up to their environmental responsibilities.

As Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of mobility platform Uber, acknowledges, cities have been forced “to rethink their infrastructure, transforming parking into parks and creating more space for walkers and cyclists”. “We’ve had a glimpse of what life could be like with less traffic and cleaner air – in cities built for people, not for cars,” he says.

Uber and its rival Lyft have faced particularly strong and ongoing criticism for their role contributing to traffic and air pollution, with research showing many of their rides replace less polluting alternatives, like walking, biking, or taking public transport. As the ‘new normal’ emerges, carbon emissions are already starting to creep up from their lockdown lows. When two-thirds of the world’s population was under lockdown in early Apr-2020, carbon emissions fell -17% compared to last year. By Jun-2020, the drop was already only -5%, according to the 'United in Science report: Climate Change has not stopped for Covid-19', published by the United Nations this week.

Instead of going back to business as usual, Uber says it is taking this moment as an opportunity to reduce its environmental impact. “It’s our responsibility as the largest mobility platform in the world to more aggressively tackle the challenge of climate change. We want to do our part to build back better and drive a green recovery in our cities,” says Mr Khosrowshahi.

Uber has now made a commitment to provide 50% of its rides in emissions-free vehicles across seven European capitals by 2025 but more widely has also outlined aims to have 100% of rides taking place in electric vehicles across all US, Canadian, and European cities by 2030.

The moves in Europe follow an almost year-long #TrueCostOfUber campaign by Transport & Environment and seven NGO partners. the mobility platform has pledged to make these significant drives initially in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Madrid and Paris in response to a call urging it to ditch dirty vehicles and replace them with electric cars.

Brussels-based Transport & Environment, which is supported by 63 organisations (53 members and 10 supporters) suggests Uber’s commitment “will save approximately 500,000 tonnes of climate-wrecking carbon dioxide emissions” and says this is “equivalent to removing the CO2 emissions of 275,000 privately-owned cars from the roads”.

The European NGO’s executive director says “shared electric mobility is key” to solving the pollution and congestion issues in many cities across Europe, and the right place to start is “with high-mileage drivers who'll benefit first from cheaper-to-run, clean electric vehicles”.

Transport is widely recognised as one of Europe’s biggest climate concerns, representing more than a quarter (27%) of the bloc’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Data shows that cars in the EU27 emit 45% of all transport carbon emissions and to meet the EU's legally binding target of net-zero emissions by 2050 significant changes are on the cards.

Across Europe electric cars emit, on average, almost three times less carbon emissions than equivalent petrol or diesel cars. Every year electricity generation gets cleaner thanks to more renewable power coming online. But cost remains a major factor in substitution as electric cars remain expensive to buy, albeit price parity could be reached within a couple of years.

The outlay cost is partly balanced by the vehicles being cheaper to run and owners who drive for a living can quickly reap benefits from lower fuel bills because they drive on average four-to-five times more than private motorists, according to Transport & Environment.

“With the support of governments and corporations like Uber, drivers can overcome the barrier of higher upfront costs in the few years left before electric vehicles reach price parity with diesel and petrol cars. A raft of affordable electric models that are coming to market in the next two years will make the battery electric car the cheapest yet for professional ride hailing,” it says.

The European NGO says the European Commission “has a key role to play” helping to deliver this more sustainable solution and a similar government level response is required to deliver the roadmap to allow companies like Uber to make the moves to deliver momentum. Uber’s commitment to go 100% electric is based on a an up to five year timescale after the the economic and regulatory conditions are available to make driving all-electric cars as profitable as dirty combustion engine cars.

Uber is committing to become a fully zero-emission platform by 2040, with 100% of rides taking place in zero-emission vehicles, on public transit, or with micromobility. The 2030 commitment in Europe, Canada and US could be achievable in any major city, says Mr Khosrowshahi, so long as Uber “can work with local stakeholders to implement policies that ensure a fair transition to EVs for drivers”. Alongside this platform goals, Uber also commits to reaching net-zero emissions from its corporate operations by 2030.

Uber outlines a holistic approach to reducing emissions, starting with some key actions. Expanding its Uber Green and launching in more than 15 US and Canadian cities (taking it to 65 cities globally) will make it easier for riders to choose to travel in hybrids or electric vehicles. There will be a USD1 premium for such trips, but that cost is offset with higher loyalty rewards.

But, making it easier for riders to choose greener rides is only one part of the equation; and helping drivers make an equitable transition to electric vehicles is just as important to helping meet these targets. Uber is pledging to commit more than USD800 million in resources to support hundreds of thousands of drivers in the US, Canada, and Europe transition to battery electric vehicles by 2025.

“The world is at a critical juncture, and we all have a role to play. Uber is aiming high. We’ll seek to build the most efficient, decarbonised, and multimodal platform in the world for on-demand mobility. While we’re not the first to set ambitious goals in transitioning to EVs, we intend to be the first to make it happen. Competing on sustainability is a win for the world,” says Mr Khosrowshahi.