Want to Plant More Trees? Just Use a Different Search Engine

Climate change is the problem we have few answers for, because every little thing we do makes it worse. Your morning coffee, the clothes you wear, every inch you travel by motorized means—it all adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If it were one element of our society or personal lives we’d have to change, that would perhaps be manageable. But it’s everything, and that is paralyzing.

If only, preposterously, all those minuscule actions were not tiny inflictions on the environment, but tiny improvements to it. One company is trying to do exactly that for our most perpetually present source of ongoing damage to the planet: the internet.

Ecosia is a search engine that donates the bulk of its expendable funds to tree-planting organizations around the globe. You search to see if that was, as you suspected, Bill Hader doing the voice of that animated squirrel, and somewhere far away, a tree is put into the ground. Though it is based on Bing, Ecosia anonymizes all user data after holding it for four days (according to Ecosia, this four-day period is for security purposes) and has a written agreement with Microsoft requiring the company to follow the same practice.After paying for its operational and marketing costs, Ecosia invests the rest in long-term projects and tree-planting organizations. That’s how, by Ecosia’s own count, it has planted over 70 million trees since its founding in 2009. It also takes a “first, do no harm” approach by building solar farms that cover the energy required to operate Ecosia itself.

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Ecosia is part of the Microsoft Search Network, which includes Yahoo, AOL and DuckDuckGo. This allows Ecosia to access the search algorithm that powers Bing, and Microsoft’s network of advertisers, in exchange for a percentage of its ad revenue. The precise amount is confidential, but Ecosia Founder and CEO Christian Kroll says that Ecosia takes “the vast majority” of the revenue it generates.This partnership means that an Ecosia search requires not just its own servers but Microsoft’s as well, and when it comes to sustainability, Microsoft is crushed by Google. Google reached 100 percent carbon neutrality in 2018, with clean energy purchases that offset both its data centers and offices (its actual power still comes largely from dirty sources, but it buys an equivalent amount of clean energy). Microsoft, on the other hand, states that it is on pace to reach 60 percent carbon neutrality by the end of 2019, and is committed to 70 percent by 2023.In that sense, Google is more eco-friendly than the search engine with “eco” in its name. According to Ecosia, the company factors in the energy it uses from Microsoft in all its claims about sustainability. Kroll says Ecosia was on pace to generate 200 percent of its total energy use from new sustainable sources (“Why stop at one hundred?”) but that progress was slowed by Ecosia’s own growth. According to its self-published financial statements, Ecosia’s July 2019 revenue (over $1.6 million) was more than double its July revenue the previous year.
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What jumps out when perusing Ecosia’s financial documents is not the growth, it’s the margins. Ecosia’s operational costs are generally quite lean: Its operational and marketing costs (including employee salaries) rarely eclipse 50 percent of revenue. Most of the rest goes toward tree planting, and a slice gets stashed for long-term projects.

More About Trees

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  • Just planting new trees isn't going to get us out of the mess we're in .
  • How many trees can we actually plant on available land? A whole lot .
  • Trees generate their own emissions too.
Bing, meanwhile, was $1.3 billion in the red in 2013 and only became profitable in 2016. How is it that Ecosia has been merrily pumping out month after month in which it brings in at least double its total cost of operating—unheard of for nearly any business—while its technological backbone only recently became profitable?

The answer is that Ecosia can collect the profits per click of a major search engine (minus Microsoft’s cut) while spending next to nothing on the technology to create and maintain such a service. Ecosia employs around 25 software engineers. Microsoft does not disclose how many engineers work specifically on Bing, but it’s clear from financial reporting around Bing that the company’s budget is several orders of magnitude greater than Ecosia’s. Ecosia pays for its own servers, maintains a browser plug-in and mobile app, and the rest of the team works on marketing and operations. The heavy lifting of operating a search engine is outsourced to a tech colossus.