Blog & PodcastDealing with the Climate Crisis

Anthony Day helps you plan a sustainable future with expert guests and reports on green technologies from across a warming world.

Welcome to the second weekly interview from the Sustainable Futures Report. We're talking about the search engine that plants trees.

 

  • My guest this time is Christian Kroll, who is the CEO of Ecosia. It's a sustainable search engine because it plants trees. A search engine which plants trees, tell me more.
  • Yeah. So it basically works like any other search engine does so you type in your search queries, and when you hit the search button then we show you search results. The big difference though is that we use the profits that we’re generating from the searches to finance tree planting projects around the world. So whilst other search engines basically pay money to their shareholders, we pay money to Mother Earth, and this is how you can, by searching with us instead of other search engines, basically contribute to reforesting our planet. And we have a lot of users who are doing that so that's how we already managed 10 of millions of trees. 

 

  • Right, okay. So did you set up Ecosia as a way of supporting tree planting and regenerating nature, or did you set up a search engine and then think let's find a way of offsetting your carbon footprint? Because even search engines have carbon footprints, don't they? 

 

  • Yeah, for me when I started the company, it was actually, after I finished university and I wanted to do something meaningful with my life but I didn't really know what to do. And I did a longer trip around the world where I spent almost one and a half years. Most of the time living in developing countries, I observed how unfair our world is and also how much we're destroying our planet, and how much climate change will be a problem. So that was in 2006 2007, it was not so such a big topic back then, as it is today, but for me that was kind of the revelation that this is what I need to dedicate my life to, and before that I was doing a little bit of online, build a few online websites so I had a little bit of exposure to to search technology so I knew a little bit about that that market. And I realised I can use that knowledge to actually have a very very meaningful impact on people's lives on our biodiversity and also on climate change. So the motivation came really from that I wanted to do as much good as possible. And I realised that search engines are a great way of doing that. And so what I sometimes like to say is that we're not planting trees to make money but we're making money to plant trees so we need the other way around. And the one decision that I did three years ago was actually to turn, because I want to give basically all of the shares that I'm owning and also my partner's owning of because they give that to foundation to make sure that, because it can never be sold and it's also impossible to extract any profits from the company. So by that we make sure that the purpose of the company to reforest our planet is always that that's the key mission, and of course we have to be a profitable business to do so. But it's not about profit maximisation that was, that is very important to me. 

 

  • Okay. We've got to the stage now where people don't even bother to say Let's search the internet they say let's Google something. How big are you in relation to Google as a search engine? Obviously Google's got much wider interests but where do you figure?

 

  • Yeah so I sometimes like to say that we're Europe's biggest search engine. For which sounds really impressive but actually that means we only have around 1% market share in our most important markets, Germany, France, the UK for example. It's roughly 1% and 97% usually is Google's market share, so really tiny compared to Google. And that's a problem. So I think that's very unfortunate. I would like to have more competitors to be honest. And also, that's, I think, not only a problem for us but I think a problem for society. So if you have not saying that Google is an evil company but it's extremely powerful, and a lot of people are basing their decisions on web searches, and if you have basically just one source of information, and then that's a problem and that power can be abused in some areas, it is already abused in there, kind of thing. The bigger problem is that there are always those kinds of micro changes in rankings that people don't even notice so it can be very subtle. And I think we just need more diversity in the search market especially because search engines are also evolving into personal assistants that are just taking a lot of decisions for you without you actually noticing it. I think it's dangerous if you just have one player so even if it goes you wouldn't plant trees, and I would still say rather use us and Google. And also there's a privacy gain that you get with using an alternative search engine so as a Google for example we don't store your personalised searches we don't create a search profile or profile of you when you're using us at that I think also has a lot of a lot of advantages while Google is able to kind of pull together all the information that they're getting from all the services they're providing. And sometimes Google knows more about you than your own mother know right. 

 

  • Okay. Well, Looking at it from a practical point of view, I do a tremendous amount of research for the podcast, and I have to say it's Google all the time, well actually it isn't actually as I've installed Ecosia, but am I getting the same results from Ecosia as I would from Google?

 

  • So you don't get exactly the same results. Much of the algorithms that we're using are based on Bing, Microsoft's search engine, so there's where this is kind of what you probably wouldn't compare it to in terms of result quality. That means sometimes you get exactly the same results. Sometimes they're slightly different. I personally would say I'm happy with 95% of my searches, but they're 5% of searches where I'm going to Google. I think they're also searches for like five to 10% of the searches were like, oh now I actually got a better result than comparing that to Google so that also happens. And I think you just need to take into account that we don't know as much about you as Google does, which means you don't get kind of the results that are perfectly tailored to you, which is maybe nice from a usability perspective but also kind of scary when you look at it from just information not relative perspective. So it's a different experience but I think for most of the users who use it it's completely like it's people often can't tell the difference that there is a difference.

 

  • Alright, let's look at the carbon footprint, there's a lot of controversy over what the carbon footprint of Google searches. A lot of people, a lot of academics and so on set between seven and 10 grams of co2 per search, Google says it's far far far smaller than that. Do you have a feel for the carbon footprint of your own operations? Do you think it's a sensible statistic? 

 

  • Yeah so I think we don't know, I mean we don't know Google's numbers. I personally when I saw we did some rough calculations I think it's probably insurance rather than less than six to seven grams. So Google I think said that it's 0.2 grams per search. I think maybe that's a little bit too low, but I think somewhere in between that, if you look at Ecosia’s footprint, there are two important things that are right there. First of all, we're for all the servers that we're using, so the entire infrastructure, we're using, we're using renewable energy, and the big difference there is to our big tech companies that we're not only using 100% renewable energy but we're actually investing far far more than that is renewable energy. So we're actually using, I think 300% renewable energy which might sound a little bit strange but we're putting more dirty energy out of the grid than we're actually using. So even if you just look at the energy consumption perspective, we would actually have a positive climate impact. But even if that would not be the case, even if we would not have our own renewable energy power plants. Then, we will still have a message on the positive impact of food or tree planting. So we estimate that search with Ecosia absorbs around one kilogramme of co2. Of course it depends on all of your clicking on advertisements and so on but the kind of positive effect is much much much higher than the potentially negative effects so you're comparing, even if the numbers are true the seven grams that people are saying I think it's actually rather one gram of emissions. In our case, You have one kilogramme of reduction. And that is, yes, very, very significant if you do the math. I'm personally searching dozens of times every day that means 1000s of times every year and that means actually, a few tonnes of co2, reduced from the atmosphere just because of internet searches, and the average German, I think has a footprint of 12 tonnes of co2 per year. And if you're just by searching you're changing your search engine, you can have such a positive reduction there, then you should do that it's one of the easiest things that you can do to actually have a positive impact on the climate and not saying that this is all you should do you should also fly less eat less meat, and consume less things that you don't need or have kind of a more climate friendly consumers approach I would say, but it's still one of the easiest things that you can do really

 

  • But of course it depends on your advertising, I mean, if I click a search that doesn't have any direct effect, but if more, you get more users, you get more advertisers, you get more advertising revenue and then you can have more money to invest in trees but talking about trees. Are you confident that trees are as effective as people would like to believe because as far as offsetting by using trees is concerned? A tree will take decades to actually absorb useful amounts of co2, or carbon in fact, and therefore you've got to be confident that those trees will still be there for decades and there have been cases where people have sold trees and they sell the same trees again and then they've put trees in and they've cut them down after only 20 years. So, are you confident going down the tree route, and maybe that's not the only way you're going down but are you confident that it's actually doing what it says? 

 

  • Yeah, a very good point. I think there's that say in the tree planting industry there, there's a wide spectrum of how good or not good this is being done. I think we're on the positive kind of positive side of the spectrum. And also I think it needs to be highlighted that tree planting alone warns of climate change, I think that presumption is very very dangerous, it's one of the most effective things that we can do to solve climate change, of course, we also need to protect forests that are already standing that is that is a very big element. Then, if you're adding trees on top of that then kind of forest as a whole can have a very very positive impact on not only taking co2 from the atmosphere but also mitigating the effects of climate change kind of creating microclimates that are actually then livable again and helping the water cycle and so on so that is trees can be. I think actually one of our most powerful, or probably one of the three most powerful categories when it comes to solving climate change so trees are one of them, agriculture in general are how we produce food and consume food is the second one and the third one in my opinion is how we create energy and how we use energy. So, that's kind of, and then of course a lot of smaller things but if you look at the numbers, there's an initiative that I like very much, called Project Drawdown and they're highlighting the kind of 100, the 100 most impactful initiatives and trees are among many of those. Among them, I think, among the top 20 You have 12 of them, either related to food, or trees, so it's really, really significant. 

 

  • But, how close are you to the tree planting? I mean do you just send money to companies which plant the trees for you or how do you do it?

 

  • Yeah, so exactly that is what you pointed out earlier, tree planting needs to be done the right way, that is what I consider our role so we're not planting the trees ourselves but we're setting the criteria. So that means that, I mean there's kind of standard criteria no child labour or no monoculture is no pesticides and so on. But then also we are helping, or we're developing together with the tree planting organisations and I think we have 16 different partners, already 16 different tree planting partners were developing the goals that they have for the projects, and also the projects themselves. And the idea is that we need to make sure that not only the trees get planted but actually that the trees survive in the long term. And that is the tricky part I would say tree planting alone is easy, but making sure that the trees actually stay standing, that's, that's the tricky part. And the way you can guarantee that is not by building a fence around them or potentially buying land or something like that, that won't work especially, we're often working in developing countries where you can't like the, the conditions are very, very different from what you would imagine when you're living in Germany so many of the things that you think you could do to protect the forest, don't apply there anyhow. What you need to do is you need to design a project in a way that it actually serves the needs of the local communities. And if you do that, then people will not cut down the trees, if they're benefiting from the trees, they will not cut down the trees. So if they, if they're benefiting from fruits or nuts that they can harvest from the trees, they will not. People will not cut down the trees, or if they know that they have, let's say, reforested a little hill right next to their village. And because of that now the kind of stream of water coming down, filling up again and they can do agriculture thanks to that, and they know that this is because they have reforested that. Then they also want to cut down the trees so you need to take that into account and take into account all needs that people have often in developing countries, people also just need firewood, you can't ignore that. So, you need to plan that into your tree planting project and need to allow people to cut down either branches or potentially even entire trees as long as they're replanting them, that's also okay. So I think you need to have this holistic approach, and if tree planting is done right and holistically. It can have really really positive impacts on the climate but also on a lot of other important, let's say, sustainable Development Goals, and it can be kind of a super superpower that that really creates a positive future and reinforcing loop, but it can also just be completely meaningless, and actually have negative impacts that's why I think there's a big spectrum and you actually need to look where on that spectrum are you, and a lot of tree planting, that's being advertised is actually not right.

 

  • Well, thank you for that, this will be very interesting. You won't be surprised as we move forward towards November, I'm asking all my interviewees, what about cop26 I'm sure you've got a view on that, what are your hopes and expectations for cop26 The upcoming climate conference. 

 

  • Yeah so I think my hope is just that, overall, as humans, we agree on more ambitious climate targets that we have set up, or what's happening at the moment is just not enough. And that needs to happen in various and in various areas so of course, energy, Agriculture, but also when it comes to protecting existing forests and planting new forests, we also need to be more ambitious. And I hope that our world leaders agree on that. We also play quite an active role actually highlighting how good tree planting can be done, highlighting the importance of tree planting when it comes to solving climate change and mitigating the effects of climate change. So we actually participate in quite a lot in common and also even in the planning. What I personally hope is that also we change the mindset of, I think people and companies as well we're still in a mindset where a lot of people talk about reusing their footprints or kind of getting to carbon neutrality. I think it's too late for that. I personally think that we already need to start thinking about how we can have a maximum positive impact on the climate. And that is, so it doesn't end if you at some point carbon neutrality because that is already too late like we're already beyond the point where it's. So being sustainable is enough. So we, everybody needs to think like what is the maximum positive thing that I can do, and our world leaders need to think like that, I think big corporations need to think like that because many, if you look at Google for example, of course, Google isn't a horrible company when it when it comes to co2 emissions. They invest a bit of money into renewable energy that the minimum I would say, but they're doing a few things. But if you look at the more than 100 billion euros that they have lying around in their bank accounts, they could do a lot of good with that money, they could finance a big part of the energy transition or the agricultural transition that we need. And that would even be profitable. So I think we need to start judging people by what they could be doing and not find that people just say okay I'm, I'm offsetting my fights, I'm fine. I think that's not enough, it's really we need to be much, much more ambitious, and I think especially people from rich countries need to take more responsibility and I hope that this is going to happen. And we, because we want to be a role model for that because we're basically giving away all our money to solving, not only climate change but also other pressing, pressing problems. 

 

  • Thank you very much for that, that's been very interesting. So thank you for talking to the sustainable futures report. That's Christian Kroll, CEO of Ecosia. 

 

  • Thank you very much for having me.

 

Many thanks to Christian Kroll. Find Ecosia at ecosia.org 

I just want to make it clear that these interviews are not advertorial. The Sustainable Futures Report accepts no advertising, sponsorship or subsidies and I have total editorial control. Of course I am always grateful for the support of my patrons who pay a small monthly contribution to help me cover my costs. If you would like to join their number you’re more than welcome. Find the details at patreon.com/sfr 

I’m Anthony Day.

That was the Sustainable Futures Report’s weekly interview. Next Wednesday you’ll hear about using AI for saving water, but before that, on Friday, listen to your regular episode.

Until next time

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A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
And also, I do address conferences.

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