The way Google calculates the climate impact of your flights has changed.
Your flights now seem to have a much smaller impact on the environment than before.
That’s because the world’s biggest search engine has removed a key global warming factor from its carbon flight computer.
“Google has looked at a huge chunk of the climate impact of the aviation industry from its pages,” says Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist.
With Google hosting nine out of 10 online searches, this could have a big impact on people’s travel decisions.
The company said it made the change after consultation with “industry partners”.
It affects the carbon calculator built into the company’s “Google Flights” search tool.
If you’ve ever tried to find a flight on Google, you’ll have come across Google Flights.
It appears at the top of search results and lets you search the web for flights and fares.
It also offers a calculation of the emissions produced by your trip.
Google says this feature is designed “to help you make more sustainable travel choices.”
However, in July, Google decided to exclude all global warming effects from flights except CO2.
Some experts say Google’s calculations now represent just over half of the true climate impact of flying.
“It now significantly underestimates the global climate impact of aviation,” says Professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University, author of the most comprehensive scientific assessment of air travel’s contribution to global warming.
Flying affects the climate in many ways besides the CO2 produced by burning aviation fuel.
These include the creation of long thin clouds high in the atmosphere – known as contrails – that trap heat radiated from Earth, leading to a net warming effect on our planet.
These additional warming effects mean that although aviation is only responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions, the sector is actually responsible for around 3.5% of human-caused warming.
And it’s an area that’s about to get bigger.
Since 2000 emissions have increased by 50% and the industry is expected to grow by more than 4% each year for the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Google told the BBC that it “strongly believes” that non-CO2 aviation impacts should be included in its calculations.
He says he recognizes that on a global scale they are a significant additional impact of flights.
However, he maintains that the company’s priority is the “accuracy of the individual flight estimates” it provides to its consumers.
He says he’s working with academics to better understand how contrails and other effects of warming affect specific flights.
The UK government takes a different approach.
It recommends that companies reflect the additional impact of flights by multiplying the CO2 emissions produced by a flight by a factor of 1.9 – effectively doubling their impact.
In its guidance to companies, the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy warns that the value of this multiplier is “subject to significant uncertainty”, but says that “there is currently no better way to account for these effects” .
Transport and Environment, a group campaigning to reduce the environmental impact of travel, agrees.
“Current scientific knowledge is sufficient to state that non-CO2 impacts account for two-thirds of aviation’s total climate impact,” he says.
“The industry has hidden this problem for decades… Google should show customers the CO2-free impacts of every flight, as the European Parliament has proposed.”
Google’s changes are likely to have far-reaching effects.
The company’s carbon calculation methodology is widely recognized as the industry standard in aviation.
Used by Skyscanner, one of the largest online travel agencies in the world with over 100 million visitors per month.
Some other major online travel businesses such as Booking.com, Expedia, Tripadvisor and Visa have said they plan to use it as well.
Google’s head of sustainability, Kate Brandt, said the company aims to “build tools that enable travelers and businesses around the world to prioritize sustainability.”
Industry experts say the decision to change its methodology will backfire.
“I worry that the impact of the equivalent of hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 will be ignored because it has become invisible to customers,” says Kit Brennan, founder of Thrust Carbon, a UK company that specializes in helping businesses reduce the impact of their travel. has in the climate.
He fears that consumers might believe that non-CO2 effects on the climate are irrelevant in the long term, despite science contradicting this view.
This would mean that up to 1.5% of warming caused by human activity would be ignored and the pressure on airlines to reduce their emissions would be reduced accordingly.