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UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that Hytch claims to be the largest carbon offset program free to users, though it is much smaller than offset programs with a cost.

The Middle Tennessee transportation startup Hytch is now offering to buy carbon credits for users that commute solo.

Hytch is an app that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic by encouraging users to carpool, take public transportation or use other low-emission forms of transportation.

The company accomplishes that goal by paying users a few cents per mile for choosing sustainable forms of transportation, most often carpooling. In addition, Hytch also purchases carbon credits to offset carpooling trips.

Companies that want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability sponsor rewards and carbon credits for specific groups of Hytch users, usually their own employees.

Carbon credits are payments into projects that sequester greenhouse gasses, such as reforestation efforts or soil conservation projects.

Now, Hytch says it will purchase carbon credits for every trip users track on the app, including solo commutes by car. Previously, it only bought carbon offsets for carpooling trips or other forms of sustainable transportation.

“Investors, consumers and employees are dialing up the pressure and demanding carbon zero leadership,” Hytch co-founder Mark Cleveland said, according to a press release. “We find hope for our future when big and small companies make strong carbon neutral commitments.”

So far, most Hytch users have been employees of sponsor companies in Nashville. This new commitment would make the more than 100 million Americans who drive alone to work eligible to offset the carbon emissions from their commute.

In a press release, Hytch calls this new initiative the largest carbon offset program in the U.S. that is free to any commuter who wants to reduce their carbon footprint.

However, that claim isn’t very meaningful. A spokesperson for the company said Hytch isn’t aware of any other free carbon offset programs for commuters. Compared to existing carbon offset programs, Hytch’s impact is relatively small.

Hytch’s 12,000 users—mostly in Nashville—logged more than 11 million shared miles in 2018, and the company purchased credits offsetting 1,400 metric tons of carbon.

The rideshare company Lyft buys credits offsetting every ride, totaling more than 2 million metric tons of carbon over the course of a year. Last April, the airline Delta committed to buying carbon offsets for all domestic flights going into and out of seven major U.S. airports, covering carbon emissions for more than 170,000 passengers.

Google, which offers many services such as Youtube and Gmail for free, purchases massive amounts of carbon offsets, usually more than 1 million tons per year.

Hytch isn’t the largest carbon offset program in the U.S., but unlike other companies its operations don’t generate lots of new emissions. Delta, Google and Lyft are offsetting emissions they created, while Hytch is reducing greenhouse gasses and offsetting emissions that likely would have happened anyway.

Kanwalroop Kathy Dhanda, a sustainability researcher at Sacred Heart University who has studied carbon offsets, said the claim that Hytch is a notably large offset program is hard to back up.

"Whoever their marketing or PR people are, I think they got a little carried away," she said.

Dhanda applauded Hytch’s mission to reducing the number of single occupancy vehicles on the road, but added that the company needs to be more transparent about where it’s buying carbon credits from.

“On their website they have almost zero transparency on where their credits are. Are they planting trees? Are they doing methane sequestration?” she said. “That portion was kind of missing. They said they would offset ... but I couldn't find where they were putting the money.”

Hytch COO Kevin Foley said the company buys credits through a broker called Carbon Credit Capital.

That company buys credits from certified soil restoration, forest conservation and wind energy projects. Carbon Credit Capital’s website has a map describing each project. However, none of that information is available through Hytch’s app or website.

Hytch has only been operational for about a year, and the environmental impact is modest at a global scale, but the company believes it can have a much bigger impact as it grows.

Right now, the company only has a rewards program set up in Nashville. It’s actively working to expand into Seattle and the San Francisco bay area.

“Our primary goal at Hytch is to make every mile of all shared rides in America a carbon neutral mile,” Cleveland said, according to a May press release about the expansion to Seattle. “We can drive together and be smart about it.”

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