What if every time you used a search engine, you helped the environment?
Search Engines

What if every time you used a search engine, you helped the environment?

The IT industry has a large and ever-growing impact on the environment. Data centres alone now account for around 2% of global energy use – about the same as the aviation industry. At the same time, deforestation is accelerating at an alarming pace. But what if there was a way to use technology in a way that helped the planet?

Berlin-based Ecosia tries to do just that. The ‘Green Google’ uses money generated from people using its search engine to fund reforestation efforts.

Founded by Christian Kroll in December 2009, the initial idea was born while travelling in Nepal where he founded Xabbel; a local search engine that was supposed to help generate funds for local NGO projects.

“With an average of only four hours of electricity per day, Christian soon had to abandon ‘Xabbel’, but the idea for a search engine with a positive impact stayed with him,” says Nikki Maksimovic, Ecosia’s Country Manager for the UK and Ireland. Later, while in the Amazon, Kroll learned more about reforestation projects and how planting new trees could help neutralise CO2 emissions.

“This is when Christian realised he wanted to engage in forest preservation to help the environment. He came up with the idea of a search engine that helped finance planting and restoration projects.”

Ecosia is actually the latest iteration of this idea: Kroll previously founded Forestle, Znout, and Treely – all of which had similar ideas – before rolling all three in Ecosia.

 

How Ecosia works

To the user, Ecosia works like any other search engine: each search result brings up ads, and each click on said ads brings in revenue. Except the majority of that revenue is then spent on reforestation projects.

“We have over 5 million users worldwide and have around 150 million monthly searches. Ecosia uses at least 80% of its profits from said search ad income to plant trees. We have planted over 13.2 million trees across Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Peru, Indonesia, Tanzania, Morocco, Brazil, Nicaragua and Ethiopia.”

Obviously 150 million monthly searches pales in comparison to the literal trillions Google sees every year, but the company does what it can. The 80% figure might sound incredibly high, but the B-Corporation regularly publishes updates about its accounts and tree-planting efforts. For example, in the most recent report for July the company generated €778,000, of which €450,000 was invested directly into tree-planting initiatives – the rest covers operational costs, marketing, and a rainy-day fund - which is then broken down by each project.

There have been various similar efforts to combine the popularity of search with good causes: GoodSearch, EveryClick, Blackle, and EcoSearch, plus defunct ones such as TreeHoo or GoodTree. While Climate Change is often cited by as a major – and often controversial – issue why is Ecosia focused specifically on reforestation?

“In short, trees are the superheroes of the planet,” says Maksimovic. “They help mitigate climate change, restart water cycles, keep deserts from spreading and turn barren grounds back into fertile woods and farmland.”

Fresh, nutritious forest goods can either be directly consumed by the local communities or sold on the local markets. Local women and men find dependable employment and earn an income of their own, which helps stabilize political and economic situations. Parents can afford to send their children back to school, buy medicine and build houses.

“By planting trees, one can help create and maintain a habitat for all kinds of often endangered species, supporting local biodiversity. Trees can also help shape and restore landscapes. With their strong roots they can stabilize shorelines and mountain sides.” 

“So, by planting a tree, you can fight climate change, restore landscapes, protect wildlife, provide nutrition, employment, education, medical assistance and political as well as economic stability.”

 

Planting trees and boiling kettles

While it’s quite common to hear that one or two searches are equivalent to boiling a kettle, Maksimovic says today’s industry standard is much lower, and estimated to be about 0.2 grams of CO2 per search. She also says that Ecosia’s own carbon footprint is very important to the company.

“Our office is powered by a green energy provider, and we currently offset our emissions with a Gold-Standard project in Madagascar run by our partner myclimate.”

The company’s search technology is based on Microsoft’s Bing technology, and Maksimovic said she has been “delighted” about announcements from the Redmond Company and others to make larger investments into renewable power.  But why rely on Microsoft in the first place, and not simply do everything yourself?

“We believe that you do not need to reinvent the wheel to make a positive impact on the world. The solutions to the world’s problems already largely exist, they just require funding, scaling and commitment.”

“By using existing search technology, we can generate a lot more funds for tree planting, a lot faster, than we could by building our own crawler which would be extremely costly and would take years.”

Ecosia’s CEO Kroll has previously said that the company was in discussion to collaborate with Google, but the search giant backed out just two days prior to Ecosia’s launch because “people who use a charitable search engine tend to randomly click on more ads”.

There seems to be no bitterness, however, as Maksimovic says that despite having an “excellent relationship” with Bing, the company would be happy to work with Google or even the more privacy-focused DuckDuckGo.

“We would be open to any opportunity so long as it could guarantee continued success in supporting large scale reforestation.”

While the idea of an entire set of Google-like services that make a positive impact on the environment sounds appealing, for now Maksimovic says there are no plans to expand into other areas such as email or personal Cloud storage. But she did acknowledge such moves would be considered if they could increase Ecosia’s positive impact on people and the environment.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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