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

Flight award off San Francisco to Los Angeles, a common trip for some Californians, could emit 250 pounds of CO2 emissions, or maybe 300 or even 800 pounds — depending on which source you search online.

The wide range of estimates comes from what some climate experts see as a growing problem, with Google at the center. More and more people are trying to incorporate the effects of climate change into their life choices, e.g. B. where they go on vacation or what they 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 condemning the emission estimates as unfair.

Google is leading the way among big tech companies in trying to educate users about their potential carbon footprint when traveling, heating their homes and, more recently, preparing dinner. But airlines, ranchers and other industry groups are pushing back, saying Google’s nudge could hurt their sales. They have – successfully in the case of the airlines – demanded that the search engine giant reconsider how it calculates and presents emissions data.

The United Nations climate panel has begun to say that individual choices matter, noting in a report last year that using trains and avoiding long flights could save up to 40 percent of the potential reduction in global aviation emissions 2050 due to changes that could impact how people travel. But it’s difficult for consumers to get a personal statement of their carbon emissions, as large studies typically focus on global or regional averages rather than personalized metrics, emissions researchers say.

Scientists and start-ups working on emissions estimates worry that showing different dates will not only give buyers incorrect information about the impact of their choices, but will also discourage trust in emissions estimates for years to come. That could hamper efforts to slow the release of planet-warming gases.

“It’s worrying when fragmentation and misalignment occur,” says Sally Davey, chief executive officer of Travalyst, a nonprofit organization that brings together travel stakeholders like airlines, Google, Expedia and Visa to standardize emissions formulas. “If we create noise and not clarity and consistency, people will turn off and we won’t be driving the behaviors that we want.”

Climate protection promise

Google has emerged as a potentially powerful force in consumers’ personal carbon footprint 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. This promise 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, Google brought record high searches for “rooftop solar power,” “electric bikes,” and “electric cars,” according to the company.

Competitors like Apple, which optimizes iPhone charging based on the mix of energy sources on the local grid, and Microsoft, which highlights eco-friendly shopping items on Bing, have introduced their own “green” features. But no consumer tech company can match the breadth or audience size of Google’s climate capabilities, 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, Kate Brandt, Google’s chief sustainability officer, admits that her 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 decisions they can make are,” she says. “The data will always change and get better. They’re 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, due out mid-year target.

Joro, a startup that offers an app for tracking and offsetting emissions from card purchases, recently reviewed four online flight emissions estimation calculators to help consumers. His analysis, which drew on the guidance of academic advisors such as Yale University environmental researcher Reed Miller, showed wide disparities on routes such as San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (the UN’s aviation body) and the international air trade group IATA offer different formulas for calculating aviation emissions, Joro says. The trade group focuses on flight time over distance traveled and uses airline data on average aircraft fuel burn and cargo taken from real flights, rather than what the group believes are less accurate estimates used by other calculators will.

Joro also found out that Google is divesting itself of the Swiss non-profit organization Myclimate, which advises companies trying to track and mitigate emissions. Unlike the search company, Myclimate accounts for emissions from start to finish, including the manufacture of jet fuel, idle aircraft at airports, and the transportation of passengers from gates. Myclimate also adds some non-carbon impacts, including the warming effect on the atmosphere of contrails, which are clouds formed by aircraft exhaust. Airlines and Cattle Farmers Have Beef With Google’s Climate Math

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