How The World’s Largest Green Search Engine Is Fighting Climate Change

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Digging the half-moons in Burkino Faso. Villagers dig half-moon circle in the ground to catch water … [+] in the rainy season, before planting young trees. Joshi Gotleib In the 60 seconds it will take you to read this post, more than 12 trees will have been planted in an […]

In the 60 seconds it will take you to read this post, more than 12 trees will have been planted in an area where natural forests have disappeared. It takes about 45 searches through the world’s biggest not-for-profit search engine Ecosia to plant a tree. 

So far, the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine has planted more than 113 million trees in biodiversity hotspots such as Brazil, Madagascar and Ethiopia, an area equivalent to nearly 40,000 hectares.  

Ecosia doesn’t plant the trees,  but works on the ground with local organisations. “We stay close to the communities and ecosystem where the trees are needed and concentrate on countries where the government doesn’t have the means to carry out forestation,” explains founder and CEO Christian Kroll. 

Last year, a study by ETH Zurich showed that planting billions of trees would be one of the most effective and cheapest ways to take CO2 out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis. On its own, however, most scientists are sceptical that it’s enough, because of the level of carbon dioxide society is creating.

Nevertheless, part of the solution is to tackle deforestation, not least because the process creates a significant volume of emissions.

When a tree is felled, its potential to absorb carbon is lost. It also releases carbon into the atmosphere, more so if burned.

And as land is cultivated for crops, the absorption of carbon falls. When pasture replaces rainforest, the land teems with cattle and termites which release even more carbon. 

Almost everywhere that Ecosia runs projects, people ask for food, water and shelter, but not necessarily trees. Yet, as Kroll points out, “When you plant trees, you do so much more. Trees allow communities to harvest branches, fruits and nuts, build and to send the income to schools.”  

Young villagers often don’t realise there was once a forest where they live. By planting trees, you can change things, and change can happen fast. Ecosia’s projects in Burkino Faso have been especially successful, Kroll says. “Seeds thrown into the air one year become vegetation the next rainy season. When people see it, they say, ‘Oh, I can stay in my village – there is hope.’” 

“I really think the refugee crisis we see now is just the beginning,” warns Kroll. “In Nigeria, for instance, a lot of young people can’t feed their families because the crops aren’t growing. There is less rainfall than there used to be, people don’t know how to turn the land, and violent groups make it harder for low-income families to make a living. You can turn that round by planting trees.”

Forests also help the soil to retain water. “The kinds of droughts and floods we have had recently mean the same thing – not enough vegetation to hold water in the soil, and when the rain comes, it also takes away the vegetation,” Kroll explains. 

Deforestation is not just a problem for developing countries, either. Nearly 33% of Germany is forest, estimated to store up 127 million tonnes of carbon a year. Now the country’s parched trees are in danger of ecological collapse, partly because of pest infestations. Kroll argues of the problem has been caused by failing to replace highly sustainable beech trees with similar. By replacing them with pine and spruce, forests hold less water and have become less immune to pests. 

Kroll isn’t against felling trees, but advocates planting native species , and mixing in non-native species to fit local and changing climates and encourage biodiversity. 

Taking root 

Kroll studied business administration at university but decided to leave early to travel. In Nepal, he tried and failed to set up a search engine as a social business. Travelling through the ancient rainforests of Latin America he saw the impact of deforestation at first hand. Living in Buenos Aries,  he learned how nearby soy plantations and cattle ranches had once been rainforests.

Returning to Berlin, he launched Ecosia in 2009 with bootstrap finance. It’s taken time to incubate, but now searches and user numbers are increasing exponentially.

When I first met Kroll in Lisbon at Web Summit last year, Ecosia was making enough revenue from advertising to invest in technology and pay reasonable salaries (not always the case with startups, even after 11 years). Today it has 77 employees.

Kroll, however, will never be able to take out profit or benefit from a sale of the company, and nor will his co-workers. Two years ago, he and his co-workers gave 99% of the company’s share capital to the Purpose Foundation. The idea, he says, is that no-one, including him as founder, should take profits or dividends out of the company. As shareholder, he and his co-workers act as stewards, rather than owners.

Financed By Ad Revenue

Ecosia users make more than 10,000 searches every 60 seconds. Advertising revenue is generated each time users click through. Its search results are powered by Microsoft Bing.

According to ReliableSoft, Ecosia is the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine. As the world’s biggest not-for-profit online portal, it’s been able to charge relatively good rates. This year, however, ad revenue has taken a significant hit due to the coronavirus. It’s now tracking upwards again, though not to pre-pandemic levels. Despite this, Ecosia has honored all its tree-planting contracts, and has signed contracts to plant a further 60 million more trees.

Unlike Google and other commercial search engines, Ecosia anonymises all searches, and does not sell any personal data about its 15 million plus users to advertisers. 

A growing number of British universities have made Ecosia their default search engine such as Glasgow, Leeds and Sussex. 

“Ecosia is great,” says Alice Carpenter, a 20-year old student at Edinburgh University. “I started using it about 18 months ago, when my friends introduced me to the site. Sometimes it’s a tiny bit slower than Google, but I haven’t noticed that so much recently, and I’d much rather be doing something about climate change.” 

ETH’s researchers found that there is currently an area of one-third of the U.S. available for tree restoration. Once mature, these new forests could store 205 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to some two thirds of the 300 billion tonnes of carbon that we have sent into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

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