Climate

The Search Engine That’s Using Its Profits To Plant Millions Of Trees

CREDIT: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

In this Oct. 10, 2012 photo, Patrick da Silva, left, and Talles de Almeida work on a reforestation project in the Atlantic Forest region of Silva Jardim, in Brazil's state of Rio de Janeiro.

Using the internet isn’t generally thought of as a particularly eco-friendly activity. But one search engine is out to change that — by turning online research into a way to help the planet.

Ecosia, a search engine that reports more than 2 million active users, uses the advertising revenue it gets from people using the site to plant trees in Africa and Brazil. The site gives about 80 percent of its profits each month to tree-planting — an amount that evens out to $3.1 million over the last seven years.

Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of Ecosia, started the Berlin-based search engine in 2009. He said he came up with the idea after finishing his degree in business administration in southern Germany.

ecosia

“I knew I wanted to work on a product that would benefit the user as well as society and the environment,” Kroll said in an email to ThinkProgress. “So I started traveling the world for inspiration and taught myself some programming.”

Kroll worked with a search engine in Nepal that funded nonprofits with its revenue, and, after that job ended, traveled to Argentina and learned about deforestation there. He drew from those two experiences to create Ecosia. The search engine, which partners with Belgian tree-planting nonprofit WeForest, first began planting trees in Brazil. It’s since moved on to Burkina Faso, a country that lies south of the massive reforestation effort known as the Great Green Wall.

The goal of the Great Green Wall is to plant a wall of trees and vegetation across Africa, from Senegal to Djibouti, in an effort to stop the climate-change-aided southward spread of the Sahara desert. Trees and other vegetation can help reduce erosion and slow wind speeds, and can also be a source of fruit and vegetables for people who live near the wall.

“Those trees nourish local communities,” Kroll said. “They have the power to neutralize CO2, but also to restart water cycles, feed entire villages and stabilize their political, health, economic and social situations.”

Tree planting is generally accepted as a way to combat climate change. Trees act as carbon sinks, sequestering greenhouse gases that otherwise would contribute to a warming climate (though it’s worth noting that not all trees are equal when it comes to combating greenhouse gases).

So far, Ecosia has planted more than 3 million trees in Burkino Faso and Brazil. The search engine, which can be added as an extension to Chrome and other browsers, funds a new tree every 12 seconds. The 11-person Ecosia team has a goal of planting 1 billion trees by 2020 — a target which Kroll admits is “very ambitious” but which he says keeps the team inspired. That team has been growing since 2014, when Ecosia decided to start contributing 80 percent of its profits — rather than 80 percent of its overall income, as it had been doing before — to tree-planting. Since then, Kroll said the site has hired “additional developers, product and usability managers, a designer, a press and community manager.”

“Thanks to all these improvements and new colleagues and the buzz they’re creating, our monthly income has increased greatly, which means that the total sum of our donation is also bigger than before,” he said.

Kroll said it’s the site’s users who have helped the company achieve what it has thus far.

“We have a very dedicated community, who love the idea of our tree-planting search so much that they’re usually happy to pass the word on. This has been very motivating for us to see,” he said.

Ecosia is one of countless online tools and apps that aim to help people make their everyday lives a little more environmentally-friendly. There are programs that track your carbon footprint, apps that find the most eco-friendly lightbulbs and groceries, and cheat-sheets to help convince climate-deniers that climate change is, in fact, happening. Kroll also pointed to two startups that he’s been impressed by: Polarstern, a German utility company that works solely with renewables and also helps residents in Cambodia build biogas digesters, and Fairphone, which creates phones using socially and environmentally-responsible materials.

The challenge for a search engine like Ecosia, though, is competing with giant companies like Google. Ecosia is powered by Bing — the company doesn’t have the manpower to offer its own searching capabilities without the partnership, Kroll said — but it includes a Google tab, where users can see how the Google results compare to the Bing results. Eventually, though, Kroll said he’d like to get rid of that tab.

“Google is a dangerously powerful monopolist people have come to depend on,” Kroll said. “We want to show them that there are alternatives out there… smart tools like Ecosia that cater to a user’s need and at the same time support a good cause by capitalizing on a daily habit.”