In a world filled with greenwashing, it’s not easy to make ecofriendly decisions while traveling. But Google wants to change all that by harnessing its formidable data aggregation powers to make sustainable travel—well, more Googleable.
On October 6, the search giant announced a series of new features across its various travel tools that will empower users to make more ecofriendly trip decisions, ranging from the flights they take and the hotels they stay in to their ground transportation. The company says the effort is a response to the evolving priorities of travelers, who are more conscious than ever that tourism accounts for up to 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A Booking.com survey from last summer showed that 83 percent of travelers believe sustainable travel is vital, while 61 percent said the pandemic motivated them to travel more sustainably. Meanwhile, the total number of Google searches for “eco hotel” has doubled over the past decade, according to James Byers, Google’s product management lead for consumer flights and for travel sustainability.
“As travel returns from the dip we saw during the pandemic, we’re seeing more considerate travelers who are thinking more carefully about where they go and the footprint of their own travel,” Byers says.
These initiatives also align with a companywide sustainability effort at Google led by CEO Sundar Pichai. In 2020, Google became the first major company to commit to operating solely on carbon-free energy by 2030, and the company is already at 67 percent of its goal across all of its data centers.
In the realm of travel and sustainability, a team of engineers, designers, and researchers at Google led by Byers is now dedicated specifically to developing travel features that put the power of ecofriendly decisions into the hands of the user. Read on about how you can use these tools to make more responsible travel decisions on your next trip.
Lower your carbon emissions while flying
Carbon emissions data first appeared on the Google Flights search engine in 2020 in a handful of European markets—buried under the “details” section of a flight—and it rolled out to destinations globally last summer. But beginning October 6, flight search results on Google Travel now include carbon emissions estimates in a prominent place next to other key factors like price and duration on both mobile and desktop. Travelers can even review seat-specific estimates, which appear on color-coded maps that show emissions differences between seat classes (a first-class seat has significantly higher emissions than a coach seat, primarily because it takes up several times more space).
The emissions estimates were created with the help of sources like the European Environment Agency and real-time data from airlines, along with information on aircraft type and age, trip distance, and number of seats in each class. Flights can now be sorted by their carbon emissions, and most come with a percentage number that measures how much higher or lower their emissions rate is on average for that particular route. Flight options with lower than average carbon emissions are flagged with a green badge.
On a recent search between Seattle and New York City sorted by emissions, the top result showed 20 percent lower emissions on average for that route, or 395 kg, while a similar nonstop flight for the same price showed 20 percent more emissions on average, or 589 kg. In Europe, where train travel is common, a search between London and Paris pulled up train routes alongside flights—a feature Google Flights has offered since 2015. It showed that taking the high-speed Eurostar train would result in 72 percent lower emissions on average than a flight and would only take an hour longer—roughly the same travel time when factoring in the airline check-in process.
Even in early A/B testing, travelers began to choose more sustainable flights as a result of displaying carbon emissions more prominently, which according to Byers was the overall goal of the update. And, it turns out, the more sustainable choice rarely increases the cost of a trip. “There’s very often a more sustainable option among the lower-cost flights for a given destination,” said Byers, citing a study last summer that revealed itineraries with lower emissions for the most part do not increase consumer costs. “It means that you don’t necessarily have to make a trade where you’re paying more.”
Google’s long-term goal is to share its emissions estimates as broadly as possible. In September, the search titan joined Travalyst, Prince Harry’s coalition focused on sustainability in travel, and is helping the nonprofit group to standardize air travel emissions calculations as an open model that can be used by anyone, including coalition partners like Skyscanner, TripAdvisor, Visa, and Booking.com.
Drive—or cycle—more sustainably
According to the International Energy Agency, 75 percent of transportation emissions come from road vehicles, and Google Maps has created ways for road-trippers to make more environmentally friendly routing decisions. The navigation tool launched a new feature within the United States, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab, that now defaults to the fastest route with the lowest carbon emissions, with plans to launch in Europe in 2022.
The new routes, which by Google’s estimates could save more than a million tons of carbon emissions per year, consider factors like congestion, road incline, and traffic projections powered by AI. When a more fuel-efficient route is notably longer than the fastest one, Google Maps will let users choose whether they want to prioritize trip length or emissions.
Google Maps is tackling other modes of ground transport, too. The company has seen a 98 percent spike in use of bicycling directions over the past year globally, and it partnered with scooter and bike sharing companies such as Bird and Tier to expand ride-sharing data in more than 300 cities globally from New York City to Taipei. Information in the Google Maps app now includes more locations of pickup stations and real-time data on both vehicle availability and parking spots.
A new, in-app “lite navigation” tool—currently available to Android users, and rolling out to iOS users in the coming months—will help riders minimize looking at their phone by displaying key details of their route on their home screen, including route progress and elevation changes, without having to reactivate their screen or enter into turn-by-turn navigation.
And in the not-too-distant future, Google also hopes to decrease the pain—and environmental footprint—of poorly timed traffic lights, which can lead to idling cars that result in wasted fuel and more air pollution. In partnership with several municipalities and the National Roads Company of Israel, an internal team is testing ways that Google’s AI technology can make traffic lights more efficient in four locations in Israel; so far, it has seen an up to 20 percent reduction in both fuel use and intersection delays.
Find a truly sustainable hotel
As of September, users can more easily identify sustainable hotels on Google’s hotel search tool. Properties with certified sustainable practices now have an “Eco-Certified” label with a leaf icon next to their name, and users who want more specifics on ecofriendly practices, like waste reduction and energy efficiency, can find information in the “About” tab. The certifications, which hotels need to update themselves, come from 29 independent, third-party organizations, including EarthCheck, Green Key, LEED, and Green Globe—all endorsed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
“We’ve picked certifications that require onsite audits, where someone is actually going and looking at the property in question,” Byers explains.
A recent search for hotels in San Francisco using the “under $150” filter pulled up the Hilton San Francisco Financial District for $139, and clicking on the green leaf icon led to a page that disclosed the hotel’s soap donation program, food waste reduction program, and onsite electric vehicle charging stations among other ecoconscious features.
Soon, users will be able to sort the hotels by ecofriendly attributes, in direct response to consumer priorities, according to Byers.
“We’re excited to provide a signal back to the airline industry, to our nonprofit partners including Travalyst, and to aircraft manufacturers that [sustainability] matters to our travelers,” he said.
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