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Google ‘Airbrushes’ Aviation Emissions Out of Online Flight Planning Tool

Google’s decision to change how its Google Flights search tool calculates emissions is being condemned by climate scientists and activists as cynically misleading and deeply counterproductive to the climate fight.

“Google has airbrushed a huge chunk of the aviation industry’s climate impacts from its pages,” Dr. Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director for Greenpeace UK told the BBC.

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Designed to help users “scour the web for flights and fares,” Google Flights also calculates the emissions generated by a chosen itinerary to “help you make more sustainable travel choices.”

As of July, however, the emissions calculated by the search tool “now represent just over half of the real impact” of flying, thanks to Google’s decision to omit non-CO2 climate forcers like heat-trapping contrails from its number-crunching.

That means Google Flights “now significantly understates the global impact of aviation on the climate,” Professor David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University, a leading expert on the climate impacts of aviation, told the BBC.

“Although aviation is only responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions,” non-CO2 climate forcing agents bring the industry’s impact up to 3.5% of anthropogenic global heating, says BBC. And with the industry “expected to grow by more than 4% every year for the next two decades,” it will steadily account for a higher proportion of global emissions and warming.

Google publicly reported its decision to exclude non-CO2 climate forcers from its calculations, and has doubled down on its “strong belief” in the need to restore those impacts to its calculator. But it says “the details of how and when to include these factors requires more input from our stakeholders.”

But the decision to remove non-CO2 forcers from the Google Flights calculator flies very much in the face of established practice, BBC writes. The UK government recommends “multiplying the CO2 emissions a flight generates by a factor of 1.9” to reflect the true environmental impacts of flying. The UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said that while this multiplier is “subject to significant uncertainty,” it remains the best method available.

Transport and Environment, a group campaigning to reduce the environmental impacts of travel, agreed that “current scientific knowledge is sufficient to state that non-CO2 effects represent two-thirds of the total climate impact of aviation.”

For the foreseeable future, Google Flights’ carbon calculator not accounting for these impacts is “likely to have far-reaching effects,” notes the BBC. The Google carbon calculation methodology is already used by Skyscanner, “one of the biggest online travel agencies in the world with more than 100 million visitors a month.” It’s “widely recognized as the industry standard in aviation,” with online travel businesses like Expedia, TripAdvisor, and Visa intending to use the search tool.