Climate experts say Google has ‘understated’ the real environmental impact of flying.
Google updated the carbon calculator in its Google Flights tool in July.
The tool now rules out some major drivers of global warming, experts told the BBC.
Climate experts interviewed by the BBC say Google “considered” the real environmental impact of airlines when it made changes to its in-flight carbon dioxide computer in July.
The company has updated the calculator, which is part of the Google Flights tool, to take into account only the direct CO2 emissions of a flight and exclude all other global warming effects of flights, the BBC reported.
The tool is used by travelers to calculate the potential climate impact when choosing different flights. It is also used by major travel sites such as Skyscanner.
While CO2 produced by burning fuel in an airplane is a driver of global warming, a 2021 study led by Manchester Metropolitan University estimated that about two-thirds of aviation’s environmental impact comes from other pollutants, such as particulate matter. ice, fuel particles and water vapor left in the wake of the aircraft.
Such pollutants are no longer included in the number provided to Google users, making it difficult for them to judge their impact on the climate.
Critics say the calculations provided by Google’s calculator could now only show about half of the flights’ true environmental impact, according to the BBC report.
“Google has analyzed a huge chunk of the climate impact of the aviation industry from its pages,” said Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist, one of three climate experts who spoke to the BBC.
“It now significantly underestimates the global climate impact of aviation,” Professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University told the BBC.
Aviation accounts for about 2-3% of global CO2 emissions from human activities annually, according to the European Union’s Aviation Safety Authority, although the overall environmental impact is greater.
Google told the BBC the changes were made after consultation with “industry partners”.
A Google representative confirmed to Insider that contrails were included in Google Flights’ estimated emissions until this summer. They said Google is working to include other environmental impacts in the calculator again “more accurately” in the future.
“We strongly believe that effects other than CO2 should be included in the model, but not at the expense of accuracy for individual flight estimates.
“To address this issue, we are working closely with leading academics on soon-to-be-published research to better understand how the impact of contrails varies based on critical factors such as time of day and region, which in turn will help us more accurately reflect this information to consumers,” the spokesperson said.
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