Google ‘Airbrushed’ Climate Impact of Flights, Say Experts

  • Climate experts say Google has “airbrushed” the true environmental impact of flights.
  • Google updated the carbon calculator within its Google Flights tool in July.
  • The tool now excludes some major drivers of global warming, experts told the BBC.

Climate experts interviewed by the BBC say Google “airbrushed” the true environmental impact of airlines when it made changes to its flight carbon calculator in July.

The company updated the calculator, which forms part of its Google Flights tool, to only account for the direct CO2 emissions of a flight and exclude all other global warming effects of flying, the BBC reported.

The tool is used by travelers to calculate the potential impact on the climate when selecting different flights. It is also used by major travel sites such as Skyscanner.

While CO2 produced from burning fuel in a plane is a driver of global warming, a 2021 study led by Manchester Metropolitan University estimated that around two thirds of aviation’s environmental impact comes from other pollutants such as contrails — droplets of ice, fuel particles, and water vapor left in the wake of the aircraft.

Such pollutants are no longer included in the figure provided to Google users, making it difficult for them to judge their climate impact.

Critics say the calculations provided by Google’s calculator could now only show around half of the real environmental impact of flights, per the BBC report.

“Google has airbrushed a huge chunk of the aviation industry’s climate impacts from its pages,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, one of three climate experts who spoke to the BBC.

“It now significantly understates the global impact of aviation on the climate”, Professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University told the BBC.

Aviation represents approximately 2-3% of global CO2 emissions from human activities annually, according to The European Union Aviation Safety Authority, although its total environmental impact is bigger.

Google told the BBC that the changes were made following consultation with “industry partners.”

A Google spokesperson confirmed to Insider that contrails were included in its estimated emissions of Google Flights up until this summer. They said Google was working to include other environmental impacts in the calculator again “more accurately” in the future.

“We strongly believe that non-CO2 effects should be included in the model, but not at the expense of accuracy for individual flight estimates.

“To address this issue, we’re working closely with leading academics on soon-to-be-published research to better understand how the impact of contrails varies based on critical factors like time of day and region, which will in turn help us more accurately reflect that information to consumers,” the spokesperson said.

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