Google was accused this week of “airbrushing” carbon emissions from flights.
The company, a member of sustainable travel coalition Travalyst, was called out in a BBC article for making flights look as if they have less of an impact on the environment via its carbon calculator on Google Flights.
The article also points to a post on GitHub where Google explains its carbon calculation changes, saying it is “provisionally removing contrails from our CO2 estimates” and that the change follows recent discussions with academics and industry partners.
Contrails are the long, thin clouds of vapor that can be seen in the wake of an aircraft.
Of the “airbrushing” accusation, a Google spokesperson tells PhocusWire:
“We strongly believe that non-CO2 effects should be included in the model, but not at the expense of accuracy for individual flight estimates. To address this issue, we’re working closely with leading academics on soon-to-be-published research to better understand how the impact of contrails varies based on critical factors like time of day and region, which will in turn help us more accurately reflect that information to consumers but keep the labelling as ‘CO2e’ in the model to ensure future compatibility.”
The company acknowledges the scientific agreement around the global impact of contrails but believes estimating that impact is more challenging based on a specific flight as well as other factors including time of day and regional differences.
It also says its aim is to enable a better comparison for consumers and that the most important thing is for alignment on how emissions and their impact are calculated.
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Google announced a number of steps a year ago around sustainability including an eco-certified badge for hotels that have met sustainability standards from certain independent organizations.
In addition, the search giant joined Travalyst, the organization founded by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex in 2019, and was seen as a powerful addition to the existing lineup of Booking.com, Expedia, Skyscanner, Trip.com Group and Tripadvisor.
Google said at the time that it would help the organization develop a standardized, open model for calculating and displaying carbon emissions from air travel and will contribute to the development of similar standards for hotels.
Travalyst described Google’s joining as a “significant step forward” at the time and said it meant to bring the world’s largest travel and tourism providers together on “sustainability initiatives that drive system change and lead to a resilient and thriving future for the travel and tourism industry for generations to come.”
Commenting on the BBC story, a Travalyst spokesperson tells PhocusWire:
“Travalyst exists to bring a unified, credible set of sustainability information to the mainstream to help travelers and operators make better choices. The absolute core of that is creating alignment on the journey to decarbonising the sector. This means we reduce confusion and inconsistencies, which we know to be a major blocker in making better choices.
“Currently there is not enough alignment globally among academics, governments and industry on how to calculate the impact of non-carbon emissions, however there are active efforts underway to make sure that alignment does happen and we are fully committed both to helping drive these efforts and to reintegrating this factor as soon as possible.”
The travel industry comes under a great deal of scrutiny when it comes to its carbon impact. Still in 2022, online travel giants, for example, appear to not make it a priority, at least not in their earnings.
And, despite the fact that travelers say they would pay to offset or eliminate carbon emissions, most still prioritize price over sustainability.
The many schemes and accreditations addressing sustainability in different segments of the industry only add to the challenge, and calls for a global decarbonization effort are just calls, really.
Making flight emissions data more meaningful for consumers was one topic discussed by Google and Travalyst during a sustainability panel at the Phocuswright Europe 2022.
Watch the full session here:
Executive Roundtable: Making Sustainability Sustainable - Phocuswright Europe 2022