The company offers estimates of the impact of emissions from flights and recipes. Companies that have a stake in sales objects.
A premium flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a common trip for some Californians, can generate 101 pounds of carbon emissions, or perhaps 142 or even 366 pounds – depending on sources on the Web.
The wide range of estimates is due to what some climate experts consider a growing problem centered on Google. More and more people are trying to consider the impact of climate change when choosing where to vacation or eat. However, scientists are still arguing about how to accurately assess the impact of many activities, including flying or meat production. While the math is being sorted out, some industries condemn emissions estimates as unfair, Wired wrote on the subject.
Google has led the way among major tech companies in trying to inform consumers about their potential carbon footprint when traveling, heating their homes, and, more recently, making dinner. But airlines, livestock farmers and other industry groups have resisted, saying Google’s actions could hurt their sales. They have demanded – successfully in the case of airlines – that the giant rethink the way it calculates and presents emissions data.
The UN climate panel has begun to say that individual decisions matter, noting for example in a report last year that traveling by train and avoiding long flights could contribute 40% of the potential reduction in global aviation emissions by 2050 as a result of changes in the way people choose to travel.
Emissions on the route to San Francisco are shown as 75 to 101 kilograms per first class passenger on Google. Myclimate suggests an average of 366, the trade group 142 and the UN body 85.
“It’s worrying when there is fragmentation and inconsistency. If we create noise rather than clarity and consistency, people get turned off and we don’t incentivise the behavior we want.”
Says Sally Davey, CEO of Travalyst, a non-profit that brings together travel sector players including airlines, Google, Expedia and Visa to standardize feed formulas.
Competitors such as Apple, which optimizes iPhone charging based on the local grid’s energy mix, and Microsoft, which highlights eco-friendly shopping items on Bing, have launched their own “green” features.
Google has a financial interest in making people feel comfortable in flight. Google doesn’t charge a commission for flight bookings, but travel and hotel operations, including airlines, are among the biggest users of Google ads, and users who are uncomfortable with travel because of its contribution to global warming could end up slowing travel and ad sales.
People find it valuable to see emissions data when they buy flights, and will spend more on a less polluting option, according to a 2021 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, that shows people a Google Flights-like experience.
The International Bridge, Tunnel and Highway Association disputes this theory, pointing to toll routes that may actually be more environmentally friendly, as they require fewer merges and delays due to better road conditions and more direct routes.
UC Davis animal science professor Frank Mitlohner, who works closely with farmers and ranchers, says consumers seem doomed to be confused by Internet services that force emissions estimates on them while they shop or look up other information online.