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Google Accused Of "Airbrushing" After Changing How It Calculates Your Flight's Carbon Footprint

Since July, your flight footprints have looked a lot lower.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockAug 25 2022, 15:45 UTC
The word "Google" written on Google HQ
Google say they are committed to giving travelers an informed choice. Benny Marty/shutterstock.com

Google has been accused of "airbrushing" the air industry's impact on climate change after it changed the way it calculates the carbon footprint of your flights. When you search for flights on the search engine, as well as displaying times and services, Google displays the average amount of carbon emissions pumped out by those flights. 

Prior to the update, an investigation by the BBC has found that a typical flight from Seattle to Paris would be shown to emit the equivalent of 1,070 kilograms (2,360 pounds) of carbon dioxide. After the update, the same flights would be calculated as emitting the equivalent of 521 kilograms (1,150 pounds) of CO2.

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Why the difference? Since the model changed in July, it excludes the overall impacts on the environment produced by air travel. As well as the CO2 released into the atmosphere during flights, contrails help to trap heat, and nitrogen oxide emissions by aircraft also lead to increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The warming effect of air travel is not, therefore, a simple matter of calculating how much CO2 has been released. 

Studies have found that aviation is responsible for around 3.5 percent of human activities that contribute to climate change, despite its contribution of a lower 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions. Google flights used to reflect this increased contribution to global warming in their tool, which they say is to help people make informed choices taking into account their climate impact. However, since July they have chosen to "focus on CO2 emissions".

"Following recent discussions with academic and industry partners, we are adjusting the [flight tool] to focus on CO2 emissions," Google wrote in a Github announcement

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"While we strongly believe in including non-CO2 effects in the model long-term, the details of how and when to include these factors requires more input from our stakeholders as part of a governance model that’s in development. With this change, we are provisionally removing contrails effects from our CO2e estimates."

Google went on to say that they believed these other factors were critical to the model, but that they wanted to incorporate factors like "time of day and regional variations in contrails’ warming impact". They added that they were committed to providing customers with accurate information, so that they can make informed choices when traveling.

However, reacting to the change, chief scientist of Greenpeace, Dr Doug Parr, told the BBC that Google has "airbrushed a huge chunk of the aviation industry's climate impacts from its pages", while Professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University – an expert on the contribution of air travel to the climate crisis – added that "it now significantly understates the global impact of aviation on the climate".


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