Tech

Airlines and Cattle Farmers Have Beef With Google’s Climate Math


Fly premium from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a popular trip for some Californians, could generate 101 kilograms of carbon emissions, or possibly 142 or even 366 kilograms—depending on the source you search online.

A range of estimates stem from what some climate experts see as a growing problem, with Google at the center. More and more people are trying to factor the effects of climate change into life choices, such as where to vacation or what to eat. However, scientists are still debating how to accurately estimate the impact of many activities, including flying or producing meat. While the math is settled, some industries criticize the emissions estimates as unfair.

Google has taken the lead among the big tech companies in trying to inform users about their potential carbon footprint when traveling, heating the house and, more recently, cooking dinner. But airlines, ranchers and other industry groups are protesting, arguing that Google’s push could hurt their sales. They have demanded — successfully, in the case of airlines — that the search giant rethink the way emissions data is calculated and presented.

The United Nations Climate Council has begun to say personal decision is substantial, note the example in a last year’s report that taking trains and avoiding long flights could account for up to 40% of the potential for global aviation emissions cuts by 2050 from changes in the way people choose to travel. But for consumers, individual reading of their carbon impact is difficult, as large studies tend to focus on global or regional averages rather than individualized figures, emissions researchers said.

Scientists and startups working on emissions estimates worry that presenting different data to shoppers will not only mislead them about the impact of their choices, but also mislead them. they don’t trust emissions estimates for years to come. That could hamper efforts to slow the release of planet-warming gas.

Sally Davey, chief executive officer of Travalyst, a nonprofit that convenes travel players including airlines, Google, Expedia and Visa to standardize emissions formulas, said: worrisome when there is fragmentation and bias. “If we make noise and aren’t clear and consistent, people will turn off and we won’t promote the behavior we want.”

Climate commitment

Google emerges as a potentially powerful force in consumers’ personal climate footprints since publicly setting 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 a number of new features across Maps, Flights, Search, Nest thermostats and services. other Google services, which have a combined total of more than 3 billion users. According to the company, last year brought record-high Google searches for “rooftop solar,” “electric bicycle” and “electric car.”

Rivals like Apple, iPhone charging optimization based on a combination of local and Microsoft on-grid energy sources, which highlights eco-friendly shopping items on Bing, rolled out their own “green” features. But no consumer tech company can match the breadth or audience size of Google’s climate features or the granularity of the data it provides to consumers, down to 1 /10 kg of emissions in the case of protein sources.

However, Google’s chief sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, acknowledges that the mission to inform users about lower-emission options is underway. “We see people want information, but they don’t know what the most meaningful choices they can make,” she said. “Data will keep changing and getting better. It’s not static.” Brandt declined to say whether Google will meet its goal of helping 1 billion people by the end of 2022 but said the company plans to show its progress in the future. annual environmental reportexpected by the middle of this year.

Joro, a startup that offers an application To track and offset emissions from card purchases, we recently reviewed four online calculators for estimating flight emissions to assist consumers. Its analysis, based on guidance from academic advisors such as Yale University environmental researcher Reed Miller, reveals large variations on routes that include San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (United Nations aviation agency) and international aviation trade group IATA offers different formulas for calculating aviation emissions, says Joro. The trade group focused on flight times by distance traveled and used data from airlines on average aircraft fuel consumption and payload drawn from real flights rather than what considered by the team to be less accurate estimates used by other computers.

Joro also noticed that Google split with the Swiss nonprofit Myclimate, which advises companies looking to tally and reduce emissions. Unlike the search company, Myclimate combines emissions from start to finish, including jet fuel production, aircraft idling at the airport, and shuttle bus passengers from the gate. Myclimate also adds a number of non-carbon effects, including heating effect on the atmosphere of contrailsThese are clouds formed by aircraft exhaust.

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