Google ‘Airbrushes’ Carbon Emissions Information From Flight Calculator

A Google Flights logo displayed on a smartphone
A Google Flights logo displayed on a smartphone. Igor Golovniov / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images
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Google, the largest search engine in the world, has changed the way its metasearch engine Google Flights calculates the climate impact of flights, making them seem to have much less of an environmental impact than before, the BBC has discovered.

In addition to providing users with a way to search for flights and fares since October of 2021, Google Flights has also allowed users to calculate and compare the carbon emissions of airplane journeys, reported The Independent. But according to Greenpeace, in July of 2022 Google removed all the drivers of global warming from its flight carbon calculator except carbon dioxide emissions.

“Google has airbrushed a huge chunk of the aviation industry’s climate impacts from its pages,” chief scientist and policy director of Greenpeace Dr. Doug Parr told the BBC.

Google said the major adjustment was made after it consulted with “industry partners,” reported the BBC. The decision could have a far-reaching impact on those using Google Flights to help with their travel plans.

According to Google, the carbon calculator is designed “to help you make more sustainable travel choices,” the BBC reported.

A number of experts have said the estimates of the carbon calculator now give only a little more than half of the actual climate impact of the flight emissions it calculates.

“It now significantly understates the global impact of aviation on the climate,” said the author of the broadest scientific assessment of the contribution of air travel to global warming, professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University, as reported by the BBC.

The burning of aviation fuel emits carbon dioxide, but that isn’t the only harmful environmental effect of flying. It also produces contrails, long thin clouds that trap the Earth’s heat high up in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

The aviation sector is responsible for about two percent of global carbon emissions and about 3.5 percent of the Earth’s warming due to human activity.

Carbon emissions by the airline industry have gone up by half since 2000, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), and are expected to increase by more than four percent annually for the next twenty years.

Google posted a note on the website GitHub saying impacts other than carbon dioxide emissions were “critical” to incorporate in the climate calculator, but also stating that “the details of how and when to include these factors requires more input from our stakeholders.”

In calculating the climate and environmental impacts of flying, the UK government suggests companies multiply the carbon dioxide emissions of a flight by 1.9. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy in the UK said that, despite the fact that the formula is uncertain, there isn’t a preferable way to calculate the effects at this time, the BBC reported.

Other travel websites have built the methodology of the Google Flights’ carbon calculator into their own, including Skyscanner, which gets more than 100 million monthly visitors and uses data from Google’s partnership with Travalyst, reported Euronews Green.

“We agree that CO2e (equivalent) emissions are a critical factor in calculating the impact of aviation on the environment,” a spokesperson from Travalyst said to Euronews Green. “However, it is crucial that we strive for alignment in how these impacts are calculated.”

About 3.5 percent of global warming caused by humans is generated by the aviation industry. Transport & Environment (T & E), a collection of organizations working to reduce the environmental impact of transportation, has said that, according to the most recent scientific knowledge, about two-thirds of aviation’s total climate impact could come from the unregulated effects of non-carbon sources.

“The industry has hidden this problem for decades,” said a spokesperson from T & E, as Euronews Green reported. “Google should show customers the non-CO2 effects for each flight, as the European Parliament has proposed to do.”

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