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Environment

A greener search engine seeks to save the rainforest

While we all know that planes, cars and motorcycles release harmful gases into the atmosphere, one might be surprised to learn that even doing a Google search can hurt the environment. One search engine has a remedy.

Ecosia.org

Ecosia donates money to Amazon rainforest protection with every click

Sitting at your computer looking for gossip on Lady Gaga, plane flights to Bangkok, or whether those worrying symptoms of yours really are signs of a deadly disease might seem harmless enough. But with each click on Google, you are actually pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

“Conducting a search produces carbon dioxide because search engines operate with huge servers,” said Sophie Fabricius of CO2-online, a consultancy that looks at climate questions as they relate to the Internet. Those servers, she adds, run on energy generated with fossil fuels. The carbon footprint is gigantic.

But for those wishing to bring their own carbon footprint down to size and do a bit for the environment, the German search engine Ecosia promises guilt-free clicking.

Launched during the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009, for almost a year Ecosia has been attempting to carve green space out of the huge market share enjoyed by the California-based giant, which is so ubiquitous that it has become a verb.

While no one is Ecosia-ing just yet, over 100,000 people a day are using its searches to save the Amazon rain forest.

Click and donate

Ecosia was founded by 26-year-old Christian Kroll, who has set up his search engine's servers to run on green energy. The site uses the technology of Yahoo and Bing, and as with most search inquiries, users see regular results along with so-called "sponsored links," or advertising.

When someone clicks on one of these sponsored links, Yahoo, Bing and Ecosia earn money.

google logo

Google servers are responsible for a good deal of CO2

However, Ecosia is donating 80 percent of its revenue to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and its Amazon rainforest project. Kroll hopes to counteract the damage done by search engine servers with a contribution to protect the Amazon rainforest, which plays a major role in absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, thus slowing global warming.

"The cutting down of rain forests is behind some 20 percent of the rise in CO2 emissions," Kroll said. "So I asked myself if I couldn't use my knowledge about search engines to protect the rainforest."

Ecosia is not his first eco-venture. He had previously founded another environmentally conscious website called Forestle, which was popular in Germany, but failed to gain international traction.

According to Ecosia, each green search saves almost two square meters of the Amazon rainforest. And over a year, through Ecosia searches an average Internet user can protect about 2,000 square meters of forest - a little more than the size of an ice hockey rink.

The company reports it has donated close to 130,000 euros ($162,000) to the WWF and, in total, saved over 207,250,000 square meters of the Amazon.

"Imagine what you can do with 130,000 euros in a protected area like this, a lot," said Christian Plaep, a manager of the WWF's Amazon project in Brazil.

Amazon burning

Destruction of the Amazon rainforest damages a crucial CO2 sink

For example, he added that, it can finance carpentry training workshops and trainers to help the local population develop alternative income sources that do not harm the ecosystem.

Ecosia calls its search engine the world's greenest, although it operates in an increasingly crowded field. The green search sector includes players like EcoSearch, GoodSearch and GoodTree, which all donate to environmental causes. Sites like Treehoo and Ecocho allow uses the possibility to carbon-offset their searches.

Greenwashing?

Some have been critical of these green sites, saying some of their claims are more of a marketing gimmick than anything else.

A review on the website Search Engine News from earlier this year complained that Ecosia's claims that each click on its search engine was saving the rain forest could not be verified, and was misleading.

woman at computer

Each Ecosia search will save a chunk of rainforest, the company says

Telling users that each click on a sponsored link results in a donation to WWF, and, perhaps, saves some of the Amazon would have been more accurate, the review said.

"The claim is excessive, and shouldn't be as simplified," wrote reviewer Joe Eitel. "Many factors go into these types of donations including ultimately, how successful they end up being."

New models, different strategies

Still, Christian Kroll is determined to do something for the environment, and in addition he is interested in exploring new business models.

"I find this thinking about social business very interesting," he said. "It helps make the market economy - perhaps even capitalism itself - sustainable. We can solve problems using the existing (market-oriented) system that otherwise would have to be solved using donations."

No one is claiming Ecosia.org is going to save the environment, and one has to wonder if it can even survive against a giant like Google or if it will end up in the search engine graveyard, or at least obscurity, with the likes of AltaVista or Lycos.

"We estimate that on average a German generates 10 to 12 tons of CO2 per year," said consultant Fabricius. "If we calculate what one saves by doing searches on Ecosia, the reduction is about 15 to 20 kilos."

That's a tiny toe on a very big carbon footprint.

"People have to think of other ways to save CO2 in their daily lives as well," she said.

Author: Nicolas Martin / Kyle James (jam)
Editor: Matt Hermann

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