All would admit that the way online travel companies display the climate impact of flights is vague and inadequate. But help is on the way.
Three airlines — American, Lufthansa and EasyJet — are joining the FAA, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, and Google, among others, on an advisory committee to further develop a model to assess and report the climate impact of flight emissions.
It’s a complex undertaking that could eventually give travelers, travel agencies, and corporations more reliable data on flight emissions.
The advisory committee conducts its first quarterly meeting Wednesday in Zurich. Among the goals: To assess the climate clout of non-CO2 flight emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide, and to compare flight emissions to other transportation modes like trains, said James Byers, who leads Google Flights and Google’s travel sustainability team.
The science and the presentation of carbon data have a long way to go. The image below shows how Expedia currently depicts the climate impact of a Delta flight from JFK New York to London Heathrow with the understated phrase, “Below average CO2.”
One the longer-term aims of the committee is to refine the methodology for assessing the impact of contrails, which are those clean air-dulling ice trails that sometimes can look like linear sky-writing with a pretty blue backdrop.
The International Council on Clean Transportation and its program director, Daniel Rutherford, will serve as the committee secretariat. Google will continue to manage the technical administration of its Travel Impact Model. Updating and refining that model, which is free and open source, is the focus of the advisory committee’s work.
The advisory committee’s goals, according to the clean transportation council and Google, are to ensure that emissions estimates are:
- Accurate in terms of holding up against “real-world data,” and “distinguish between low and high-emitting tickets.”
- Comprehensive in terms of assessing the full-range of aviation’s impact on the environment.
- To assess the climate impact of new aircraft types and fuels.
Google’s Travel Impact Model already powers emissions estimates on Google Flights, Booking.com, Expedia, and Skyscanner, through the Travalyst coalition, which also has a seat on the subcommittee. Prince Harry founded Travalyst in 2019.
Byers said the three airlines on the committee were selected for their mix — two network carriers and one low-cost carrier — and geographic balance, as well as their passions about sustainability.
Asked why forming an advisory committee should not be considered mere bureaucratic window dressing, Byers said “we have a strong motivation as Google” to display climate impacts online. “It’s not a theoretical exercise for us,” he added.
Other organizations with seats on the advisory committee include the Aviation Environment Federation, Imperial College London, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Rocky Mountain Institute.
There’s much on the line with travelers’ climate decisions.
Because of varying aircraft types, seat design and layout, how many passengers are on the flight, and the routes, passengers who choose trips with lower emissions can reduce the CO2 per trip by up to 60%, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.