In a July update, Google changed the methodology of its carbon calculator, a component of its flight search aggregator service, to stop accounting for non-carbon dioxide emissions caused by airplanes. In July, Google notified users of this, divulging that it arrived at this decision “following recent discussions with academic and industry partners.”
Air travel is known to cause immense damage to the planet. The burning of aviation fuel alone produces a large amount of not just carbon dioxide, but includes other greenhouse gases responsible for global warming and climate change. Apart from this, aircrafts and ground support equipment also shed a class of hazardous air pollutants called ultra-fine particles. Aviation is also the main source of ozone, a substance that can adversely affect human respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Although only 1% of the world’s population causes half of the global aviation pollution, and almost 90% have never traveled by air in their life, commercial aviation made up about 2.4% of global CO2 emissions in 2018. Since then, the volume of air travel has only increased — and given that CO2 isn’t the only pollutant resulting from air travel, underestimating emissions has disturbing implications.
Google’s move, first observed and reported by BBC, stands to depict the environmental impact of airplanes as almost half of their actual damage. Experts say this “airbrushes” the true environmental impact of air travel.
Given growing concerns over the climate crisis, several people are increasingly conscious of their carbon footprints, choosing to travel by other alternatives to reduce the same. They’re also demanding transparency from airline operators to make more informed, ethical decisions about their traveling.
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So far, the Travel Impact Model on Google Flights is one method that allowed consumers to check the pollution that an airplane would generate. Until recently, a flyer could choose their airline of choice based on a figure that accounted for both CO2 and other emissions of the plane.
It is important here to remember, however, that even the existing travel impact model by Google emphasizes individual carbon footprint for passengers. It raises questions about the efficacy of relying on carbon footprints as a strategy to combat climate change.
Previous reports and research have found that carbon footprints are a concept pushed by fossil fuel companies to nudge individual consumers towards personal accountability — while evading accountability themselves. This allows the bigger structural issues related to mass industrialization to remain unaddressed, even as the lie at the root of large-scale carbon pollution. Carbon footprint is a strategy that pushes the guilt of climate change upon the consumer for using fuel, shifting responsibility from the corporations that manufacture it in the first place. It tries to suggest that individual action can make up for the scale at which industries operate.
When Google underestimates the polluting impact of airlines, then, the malleability of the carbon footprint approach keeps vital information about emissions from people, while providing the impression of sustainability. The incident speaks to the insufficiency of relying on carbon footprints as a strategy to address climate change. When BBC approached the tech giant for a comment on the situation, Google replied by saying the company wanted to prioritize the “accuracy of the individual flight estimates” for consumers.
Google’s Travel Impact Model then not only highlights how “academic and industry partners” in the aviation sector not only continue to push the burden of environmental responsibility on consumers, but also prevent transparency that people require for making consumption decisions. It points to a systemic undermining of people’s individual agency — showing more than ever the need for sustained, collective action against climate change.
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