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Google launches new features to help users shrink their carbon footprints

Google announced a suite of new features that it says will help people who use their platforms make more sustainable choices. The new services focus on reducing planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions and are primarily found on Search, Maps, Travel, and Nest.

But before we get into the details of how their new tools work, a quick note of context; some environmental advocates have called out companies for shifting responsibility for the climate crisis onto individual consumers. Holding big corporate polluters accountable for their emissions far outweighs any one consumers’ individual impact. And Wednesday’s announcements from Google aren’t really designed to reduce the company’s own carbon footprint.

That being said, there’s no time to lose to the prevent the climate crisis from getting worse, and every bit of emissions-savings helps. For those who might want some new tools to rein in their own emissions, here’s a breakdown of what Google just announced.

Search

Sometime this month, Google plans to switch up the way results for “climate change” appear in its Search platform. Users will be led to a dedicated results page with “high quality climate-related information,” according to Google. It plans to source content from reputable authorities on the subject, including the United Nations.

The company also says it wants to make it easier for consumers to see more eco-friendly options when shopping on Google. By “early next year,” when users based in the US search for car models and manufacturers, Google will also show results for hybrid and electric vehicles. When searching for a particular electric vehicle, users will also find nearby charging stations that are compatible with the model.

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Similarly, Google users in the US should begin to see suggestions Wednesday for more energy efficient home appliances when shopping online. That applies to searches for furnaces, dishwashers, water heaters, stoves, and dryers.

Google, however, did not announce any changes to searches on YouTube, which is a big platform for misinformation and lies about climate change. Of the top 100 videos that pop up when searching for “global warming,” 20 percent of views are for videos rife with misinformation, according to one recent analysis by nonprofit Avaaz. Google has also not met its own employees’ demands that it cancel contracts with fossil fuel companies or stop funding and lobbying for candidates that derail climate action.

Maps

Starting Wednesday, people in the US can see which driving routes are the most fuel-efficient when using Google Maps. (The company originally announced in March that this feature was on the way.) Fuel efficiency cuts down on both gas costs and tailpipe pollution. When the most fuel-efficient route is also the fastest, Google Maps will default to that option. If the fuel-efficient route is slower, the app will show users their options so that they can make an educated decision on which to choose. Users in Europe will be able to do the same starting in 2022, according to Google.

That will, in theory, help individual Google Maps users reduce their CO2 emissions. A passenger vehicle typically releases just under five metric tons of CO2 a year. And a person in the US, which has one of the highest rates of per capita emissions in the world, might be responsible for about 18 metric tons a year. Google, on the other hand, unleashed 12,529,953 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2019. That’s roughly equivalent to more than 2.73 million passenger vehicles’ pollution in a year.

Wherever cycling navigation is offered on Google Maps, the app will feature “Lite Navigation” in the coming months. This feature lets bikers see instructions and details about their route without having to leave their screen on. And starting Wednesday, the app will share information about nearby scooter and bike shares in 300 cities around the world, including Berlin, New York, São Paulo, and Taipei.

Travel

When searching for flights through Google, starting Wednesday, users will now be able to see the carbon dioxide emissions associated with each flight. They’ll even be able to see how their seat choice affects their individual carbon footprint. Taking a seat in business or first class increases the amount of pollution you’re responsible for, since they take up more space and therefore a larger share of the plane’s emissions. Choosing a more fuel efficient itinerary can actually cut CO2 pollution from a given route by as much as 63 percent, recent research found.

Separately, Google announced plans to expand its research into how to cut down emissions from driving by enabling traffic lights to direct traffic more efficiently. Google piloted the program, which utilizes AI, in Israel and found reductions between 10 to 20 percent in fuel and intersection delay time. It plans to bring the program to other cities around the world, starting with Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Nest

Google launched a new service for Nest thermostat owners in the US, which it plans to start rolling out over the next several weeks. It’s called “Nest Renew,” and allows users to automatically shift their heating and cooling to times when there’s more renewable energy available on the grid. This is a strategy that energy experts and environmental advocates have promoted as an important step to making homes more energy efficient, and reducing strain on electricity grids during times of peak demand.

In “select” markets, Google will also offer a Renew Premium subscription, which would enable subscribers to match their fossil-fueled electricity use with some investment in renewable energy (through renewable energy certificates). To learn more about Nest Renew, check out The Verge’s guide to all the changes.

Google has been offsetting its own emissions rather than fully eliminating them since 2007, and has been able to say that it is carbon neutral since that time. Google pledged last year to run its offices and data centers entirely on locally-sourced carbon-free energy by 2030, a commitment that puts it ahead of the pack when it comes to other tech companies’ promises to reach carbon neutrality. Google’s data centers now run on 67 percent clean energy, Google Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt said Wednesday.

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