Google Flights to Display Emissions Next to Every Single Flight

It may apply added pressure on the industry to improve the numbers that show up in those searches.

Passenger airplane flying above the clouds
George Pachantouris / Getty Images

Earlier this week, Google launched Nest Renew—a service that allows homeowners with a Nest thermostat to match some of their energy use to when the grid is the cleanest. This was just one part of a raft of sustainability- and climate-focused changes that included tweaks to Google Maps to help drivers identify lower emissions routes, as well as “portfolio scores” to help investors see the climate impact of where they put their money. 

It’s an interesting group of initiatives from one of the largest and most influential companies in the world. One initiative, in particular, caught my eye: Google Flights will now display flight-specific emissions data for all users when they look to make a purchase. (These emissions will be calculated based on allocated emissions per seat—meaning business and first class passengers are allocated a greater share of emissions.) Crucially, the search results also display a simple % telling the user whether the emissions are lower or higher for any specific itinerary. 

Here’s what that looks like in practice: 

Google Flights

When I first saw this announcement, I must confess I assumed the primary goal from Google would be to sell the user on carbon offsets—a decidedly controversial topic. Yet so far, at least, I’ve not seen anything from Google on offsets, and instead, they’ve focused on genuinely useful features like sorting your itinerary based on emissions. 

Of course, the hardcore no-fly crowd will point out that there is no current way to fly green—and a lower carbon flight is in no way the same thing as a low or no carbon flight. That said, researchers at the International Council on Clean Transportation have found that emissions can vary dramatically (as much as 80%!) between itineraries connecting the same two destinations. If Google can encourage even a relatively small percentage of travelers to shift to lower carbon itineraries—and perhaps encourage another chunk of travelers to rethink the need to purchase a ticket at all—then this feature really could help shift the trajectory of aviation emissions. After all, there are steps that airlines can take to reduce their emissions now—and technologies on the horizon that could significantly reduce emissions in the future. If consumer boycotts and/or more selective purchasing really kicked into gear, it may apply added pressure on the industry to improve the numbers that show up in those searches. 

The other reason to like this initiative is that it applies to everyone. It’s not dependent on me—an imperfect but climate-conscious individual—making the active choice to seek out my emissions. Instead, it’s putting that information front and center, thus educating people who either might not be aware or do not spend that much time dwelling on, the emissions related to their travel choices. 

This gets me to a broader point. Lloyd Alter has argued that we need carbon labels on everything—but I worry that seeing labels on everything will mean we don’t really read the labels on anything. Just the other day, I ordered a new grill, and vaguely noticed a label on the front telling me that the State of California has found that I’d get cancer by using it. I see that label everywhere—or versions of it—and I confess I continued to remove the packaging, and get myself ready for an evening of grilling. 

But maybe we don’t need labels everywhere. Lloyd Alter has also found—documented in his book on living the 1.5 degree lifestyle—that the lion’s share of personal emissions can usually be attributed to a few key sectors, meaning food, home energy use, and transportation. (And flights in particular!) So rather than encouraging citizens to compare the climate impact of every choice they make, there’s a strong case to be made that we should focus education, awareness-raising, and activation on the few key sectors that could actually move the needle on societal-level emissions.