Flight premium from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a typical trip for some Californians, can generate 101 kilograms of carbon, or perhaps 142 or even 366 kilograms – depending on which source you look up online.
The wide range of estimates reflects what some climate experts see as a growing problem with Google at the center. More and more people are trying to consider the effects of climate change when making life choices, such as where to rest or what to eat. However, scientists are still debating how to accurately estimate the impact of many activities, including flying or meat production. While the math is being worked out, some industries are decrying the emissions estimates as unfair.
Google is leading the way among the big tech companies in trying to inform users about their potential carbon footprint when traveling, heating their homes and, more recently, cooking dinner. But airlines, ranchers and other industry groups are pushing back, saying Google’s push could hurt their sales. They have demanded – successfully in the case of airlines – that the search giant rethink how it calculates and presents emissions data.
The United Nations Climate Change Commission has begun to say that individual decisions are important, noting, for example, in a report last year that taking trains and avoiding long-haul flights could account for 40 percent of the potential reduction in global aviation emissions by 2050 as a result of changes in how people choose to travel. But it’s difficult for consumers to get a personal view of their carbon footprint because mainstream research tends to focus on global or regional averages rather than personalized metrics, emissions researchers say.
Scientists and start-ups working on emissions estimates are concerned that showing buyers different data will not only deprive them of information about the impact of their choices, but also prevent them from trusting the emissions estimate for years to come. This could hamper efforts to slow the release of greenhouse gases.
“It’s a concern when there’s fragmentation and inconsistency,” says Sally Davey, executive director of Travalyst, a nonprofit that brings together travel players, including airlines, Google, Expedia and Visa, to standardize emissions formulas. “If we create noise instead of clarity and consistency, people are turned off and we’re not going to drive the behavior we want.”
Google has emerged as a potentially powerful force in consumers’ personal climate footprints after publicly setting a goal in September 2020 to help 1 billion people make sustainable choices through its services by the end of 2022. That promise led to several new features in Maps, Flights, search, Nest thermostats and other Google services that collectively have more than 3 billion users. According to the company, last year brought Google a record number of searches for “rooftop solar power,” “electric bikes,” and “electric cars.”
Competitors such as Apple, which optimizes iPhone charging based on the mix of energy sources on the local grid, and Microsoft, which highlights green products for shopping on Bing, have launched their own “green” features. But no consumer technology company can match the breadth or size of the audience for Google’s climate features, or the granularity of the data it delivers to consumers, down to the tenth of a kilogram of emissions in the case of protein sources.
Still, Google’s chief sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, admits that its mission to educate users about lower-emission choices is still a work in progress. “We see that people want information, but they don’t know what the most meaningful choices they can make are,” she says. “Data will change and improve. It’s not static.” Brandt declined to say whether Google had met its goal of helping 1 billion people by the end of 2022, but said the company plans to show its progress in its annual environmental report, which is due in the middle of this year.
Joro, a startup that offers an app for tracking and offsetting emissions from card purchases, recently reviewed four online calculators to estimate emissions from flights to help consumers. His analysis, which relied on recommendations from academic consultants such as Yale environmental researcher Reed Miller, found large differences on routes including San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (the UN’s aviation body) and the international airline trade group IATA offer different formulas for calculating aviation emissions, Jorah says. The trade group focuses on flight distance and uses airline data on aircraft fuel consumption and load averages from actual flights, instead of what the group believes are less precise estimates used by other calculators.
Jorah also found that Google is parting ways with Myclimate, a Swiss nonprofit that consults with companies seeking to measure and reduce emissions. Unlike a search company, Myclimate takes into account emissions from start to finish, including the production of jet fuel, aircraft idling at airports and passenger transport from gate to bus. Myclimate also adds some non-carbon effects, including the effect of atmospheric heating from contrails, which are clouds formed by aircraft exhaust.