Airlines and ranchers have trouble with Google’s climate math

Airlines and ranchers have trouble with Google’s climate math

premium flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a common trip for some Californians, could generate 101 kilograms of carbon emissions, or perhaps 142 or even 366 kilograms, depending on which source you look up online.

The wide range of estimates stems from what some climate experts see as a growing problem, with Google at the center. More people are trying to factor the impacts of climate change into their life choices, like where to go on vacation or what to eat. However, scientists are still debating how to accurately estimate the impacts of many activities, including flying or producing meat. While the math is being worked out, some industries are denouncing that the emissions estimates are unfair.

Google has led the way among big tech companies in trying to inform users about their potential carbon footprint when they travel, heat their homes and, recently, cook dinner. But airlines, ranchers and other industry groups are backing down, saying Google’s nudges could hurt their sales. They have successfully demanded, in the case of the airlines, that the search giant reconsider how it calculates and presents emissions data.

The United Nations climate panel has begun to say that individual decisions matter, noting, for example, in a report last year that taking trains and avoiding long flights could account for up to 40 percent of the potential reduction in emissions. global aviation by 2050 due to changes in how people choose to travel. But for consumers, getting a personal read on their carbon footprint is tricky, as major studies tend to focus on global or regional averages and not custom metrics, emissions researchers say.

Scientists and start-ups working on emissions estimates fear that showing buyers different data will leave them not only misinformed about the impact of their choices, but also discouraged from trusting emissions estimates for years to come. That could hamper efforts to curb the release of planet-warming gases.

“It’s worrisome when there’s fragmentation and misalignment,” says Sally Davey, chief executive of Travalyst, a nonprofit that convenes travel companies including airlines, Google, Expedia and Visa to standardize emissions formulas. “If we create noise and not clarity and consistency, people tune out and we won’t drive the behavior we want.”

climate commitment

Google has emerged as a potentially powerful force in consumers’ personal climate footprints since it publicly set a goal in September 2020 to help 1 billion people make sustainable choices through its services by the end of 2022. That commitment has led to several new features in Maps, Flights, Search, Nest Thermostats and other Google services, which together have more than 3 billion users. Last year brought record Google searches for “rooftop solar,” “electric bikes” and “electric cars,” according to the company.

Rivals such as Apple, which optimizes iPhone charging based on the mix of power sources on the local network, and Microsoft, which highlights green shopping items on Bing, have launched their own “green” features. But no consumer tech company can match the breadth or audience size of Google’s weather features or the granularity of the data it sends to consumers, down to a tenth of a kilogram of emissions in the case of sources. of proteins.

However, Google’s chief sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, acknowledges that her mission to inform users about less emissions-intensive options is 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. “The data will continue to change and improve. It is not static.” Brandt declines to say whether Google has met its goal of helping 1 billion people by the end of 2022, but says 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 to track and offset emissions from card purchases, recently reviewed four online calculators to estimate flight emissions to help consumers. Their analysis, which relied on guidance from academic advisers such as Yale University environmental researcher Reed Miller, revealed stark differences in routes that include San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (the UN aviation body) and the international airline trade group IATA offer differing formulas for calculating aviation emissions, Joro says. The trade group focuses on flight time over distance flown and uses airline data on average fuel consumption per plane and cargo that is drawn from actual flights rather than what the group considers less accurate estimates used by others. calculators.

Joro also found out that Google is parting ways with the Swiss nonprofit organization Myclimate, which consults with companies looking to count and mitigate emissions. Unlike the search company, Myclimate incorporates end-to-end emissions, including manufacturing jet fuel, aircraft idle at airports, and carrying passengers from the gates. Myclimate also adds some non-carbon impacts, including the warming effect on the atmosphere of contrails, which are the clouds formed by aircraft exhaust.

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