Following a change in how it determines the carbon footprint of your trips, Google has been accused of “airbrushing” the impact of the aviation industry on climate change. Along with showing prices and availability when you search for flights on the search engine, Google also shows the typical carbon emissions generated by particular flights.
An assessment by the BBC conducted before the update revealed that a typical flight from Seattle to Paris would produce the equivalent of 1,070 kilos (2,360 pounds) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The identical flights’ emissions would be calculated to be the equivalent of 521 kilos (1,150 pounds) of CO2 with the change.
Why the distinction? Since the model was modified in July, it no longer accounts for all environmental effects brought on by air travel. In addition to the CO2 that is released into the atmosphere during flight, aircraft emissions of nitrogen oxide and contrails help to trap heat and raise the concentrations of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Therefore, it is not straightforward to determine how much CO2 has been released in order to determine the warming effect of air travel.
Despite only accounting for about 2.5 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, studies have shown that aviation accounts for about 3.5 percent of human activities that cause climate change. In their service, which they claim is meant to assist people in making wise decisions while considering their influence on the climate, Google Flights used to account for this increased contribution to global warming. However, they have decided to “concentrate on CO2 emissions” since July.
Google announced on Github that it was changing the “flight tool” to concentrate on CO2 emissions “after recent discussions with academic and industrial partners.”
“Although we firmly think that non-CO2 effects should be included in the model over the long run, the specifics of how and when to do so need further input from our stakeholders as part of a governance model that is now being developed. With this adjustment, we are temporarily reducing the effects of contrails from our CO2e estimations.”
Google continued by stating that they thought these additional variables were crucial to the model but also wished to include variables such as “time of day and regional variations in contrails’ warming influence.” They continued by saying that they were devoted to giving clients accurate information so they could plan their trips accordingly.
Greenpeace’s chief scientist, Dr. Doug Parr, responded to the change by telling the BBC that Google has “airbrushed a huge chunk of the aviation industry’s climate impacts from its pages.” Professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University, a specialist in how air travel contributes to the climate crisis, added that “it now significantly understates the global impact of aviation on the climate.”