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The climate impact of (f)lying

9 September, 2022

Earlier in the year, we celebrated Google’s addition of the carbon impact of flights to its search engine. While some of us might be taking fewer flights these days, Google Flights remains one of the most popular platforms for those planning air travel. Providing its users with information on the emissions associated with their journey is therefore an important way to empower individuals to make the most climate-friendly choices.  

That is, if those emissions are accurate. 

According to an article published by the BBC last month, Google has tweaked its formula for calculating flight emissions to exclude all global warming impacts of flying except carbon dioxide. This means the additional warming caused by flights’ disruption to the atmosphere which traps heat radiated by the earth is going unaccounted for. The result is that estimates of carbon emissions per passenger per flight shown on Google’s platform have effectively been halved.  

This is bad news for climate change and bad behaviour by Google. It’s true that carbon foot printing remains an imperfect science, but the principles of the practice do exist, and call for completeness, transparency, and accuracy. According to Google, the formula change is temporary as it works with academics to better understand these additional warming impacts and their impact on specific flights. But with other online travel businesses planning to take up the revised methodology, the damage could be far-reaching.  

As we’ve already said once this week, carbon labelling helps consumers make informed, environmental decisions. Hiding the true carbon cost of flying helps no one. 

By Louise Podmore

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