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Google wants to be at the center of all your climate change decisions

Google wants to be at the center of all your climate change decisions


Another wide-ranging set of announcements from the tech giant aimed at helping people and organizations shrink their carbon footprint.

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Illustration: The Verge

People shopping for electric vehicles, heat pumps, or air conditioning units will see enhanced search results on Google in a series of updates the company hopes will help people live more sustainable, climate-friendly lives. The tech giant revealed the new updates alongside a host of expanded AI tools for people and policymakers to reduce tailpipe emissions and better predict floods, wildfires, and extreme heat.

As the effects of climate change intensify, Google has taken to routinely rolling out packages of updates aimed at helping individuals and organizations reduce their carbon footprint. Taken together, today’s announcements represent a renewed effort by the company to help the world mitigate the impact of climate change and better prepare for a future dominated by climate upheaval, said Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

“Fighting climate change is humanity’s next big moonshot”

“Fighting climate change is humanity’s next big moonshot,” Pichai said in a video message shared with reporters. “And as with any moonshot, we’re going to have to answer some big questions to get there.”

There’s a lot that’s being announced today, so here’s the rundown:

EV search results

Electric vehicle sales are growing by leaps and bounds as more models hit dealerships. And EV newbies are increasingly looking for trusted information to help them decide whether they’re ready to make the switch. Into the fray steps Google, which wants to be a one-stop shop for anyone looking to electrify their life.

The company is rolling out new search results for EV shoppers by including information about possible government incentives, like the federal EV tax credit in the US. That way, people can see whether the vehicle they have their eyes on qualifies for any discounts. The improved search results are already live in the US and will be hitting France and Germany later this year.

EV owners will also get more details about battery range when searching for specific models on Google. In particular, they’ll see information about how they can drive on a single charge and will be able to customize routes based on elevation changes and speed limits so they can determine how many charging stops they’ll need along the way. The battery range explorer is launching in the US and will be available in Europe early next year.

Estimating accurate battery range in an EV is a bit of a moving target, subject to a lot of external factors such as temperature. Google is pulling information about the car, such as the mass and battery size, from the Knowledge Graph, Google’s database of billions of facts about people, places, and things. The company is also sourcing road load data from the EPA, which captures factors such as rolling friction, aerodynamics, and mechanical friction.

Google is also rolling out an updated fuel cost calculator for electric and gas car search results, giving people the ability to compare their per-mile costs. This will allow people to calculate potential savings when switching from gas to electric powertrains. This feature is now available in 21 countries around the world.

Lastly, fuel-efficient routing, which uses AI to suggest routes with fewer hills, less traffic, and constant speeds with the same or similar ETA, is being expanded to India and Indonesia — two populous nations with major pollution problems.

Cycling and transit

For people who want to use non-car modes of transportation, Google is collaborating with local governments to update its cycling routes in Google Maps. For example, by working with Transport for London, Google is adding hundreds of kilometers of new bike lanes to its navigation tools.

This builds on a long-term project at Google to provide an easier way to get better multimodal directions for people who want to use multiple sustainable modes of transportation, like cycling, transit, and walking.

Meanwhile, in France, Google is piloting a new feature that suggests public transit and walking routes alongside your driving route “if they’re practical and comparable in time,” said Yael Maguire, vice president of geo sustainability.


Google’s sustainable aviation project is getting bigger. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was partnering with American Airlines and Bill Gates’ climate investment fund, Breakthrough Energy, to chart more sustainable flight routes. The aim was to help pilots limit a flight’s impact on the climate by avoiding routes that create contrails, those white streaks in the sky that planes sometimes leave behind.

Now, the contrail effort is growing to include the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, or Eurocontrol. This group manages aviation for a number of nations, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, as well as northwest Germany. Eurocontrol will now use Google’s tools to advise pilots flying through the region how to better avoid creating contrails and reduce emissions.

Project Green Light

In 2021, Google announced a new effort to reduce carbon emissions in cities called Project Green Light, an AI-driven effort to make traffic lights more efficient, thereby decreasing pollution.

Typically, stop-and-go traffic results in more carbon emissions, which has the effect of polluting the air in dense cities and worsening health conditions for residents. Intersections, in particular, are found to be especially dirty, with pollution rates up to 29 times higher than on open roads. Half the emissions at traffic intersections can be linked to vehicles stopping and starting, according to Google’s analysis of driving trends leveraging Department of Energy models.

Project Green Light uses AI to help traffic engineers tweak traffic lights so cars and trucks travel more smoothly, with less stopping and starting. Google claims the tools are extraordinarily easy to implement, activating in just five minutes using existing traffic management infrastructure. Google says that early numbers from test cities indicate that Project Green Light can reduce stops by as much as 30 percent.

Today, Google announced it was expanding Project Green Light to over a dozen cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Manchester, Jakarta, and Budapest — with more cities planned for later this year.

Home improvements

Google will show more details about sustainable energy devices for people searching for appliances like heat pumps and air conditioning units.

When people search about home heating and cooling systems like “boilers” or “air conditioning,” they’ll see information about other sustainable options, including their capabilities, their energy efficiency, and important financial government incentives.

Searching for “furnace,” for example, will show information about types of heating systems, how they compare to energy-saving options such as heat pumps, and potential savings through tax credits and incentives for each.

The search results use data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star, in the US, and the International Energy Agency in the EU.

Solar panels and ‘cool roofs’

Sustainable choices aren’t just for individuals. To help cities better include solar energy in their development plans, Google is updating Google Earth to make it easier for planners to determine the best building designs and solar options for urban areas.

This new tool aims to provide urban planners with an understanding of the solar reflectivity of different surface areas, combined with insights to enable cities to better identify which neighborhoods would benefit most from investments, and allocate resources accordingly. Google sees this as being particularly useful when planning to build places with large roofs, like parking garages.

Google’s “cool roofs” tool, which uses AI and aerial imagery to map out the solar reflectivity of cities so urban planners and governments can identify which areas would benefit most from deploying a cool roof solution, such as a white roof, is also growing to include more cities in the coming weeks.

Flood, heat, and wildfire warnings

As the world warms, more and more populations are finding themselves at risk of natural disasters, whether it’s flooding, extreme heat, or wildfires. Google sees its role as helping mitigate the impact of these disasters by providing information to decision-makers so they can be prepared ahead of time.

Or, as The Verge’s Justine Calma wrote last year:

Half of the world lacks adequate early warning systems for disasters like floods and fires, a United Nations report found last month. That’s a lack of lifesaving technology that can give people enough lead time to get themselves to safety. The hope is that Google’s services can fill in some gaps, especially as climate change makes floods and fires even more dangerous than they were in the past.

Today, the company is expanding its Flood Hub tool to the US and Canada, adding those nations to a list that includes around 80 other countries that use the feature. The hub will cover 800 riverside locations where some 12 million people currently live.

In 2020, Google also started offering users in the US a map feature that shows wildfire boundaries in near real time. The company says it’s working with the US Forest Service to update its fire spread model, which would be “the biggest update in 50 years.” Google says it’s using machine learning to “model more fire dynamics to help fire authorities train firefighters, plan effective fuel treatments and battle large-scale fires more safely and effectively while in the field.”

Lastly, Google is expanding its “tree canopy” tool, which uses AI to help cities keep their residents cool by mapping out where trees are needed most, to 2,000 additional cities globally.

The costs of AI

Asked about the climate impact of AI, Google said it was challenging to predict the future growth of data centers, for example, as AI use cases expand and evolve.

“If we look historically at research and also our own experience, it’s that AI compute demand has gone up much more slowly than the power needed for it,” Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer at the company, told reporters.

Brandt added that using new versions of TPUs, or tensor processing units, has proved to be faster and more efficient than previous versions. And data centers are being redesigned to be more energy-efficient and sustainable altogether.

“We’re about 1.5 times as energy efficient as a typical enterprise data center,” she said. “And of course, we’re driving towards carbon free energy in our data center operation.”