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This German Startup Has Just Planted 50M Trees with its Search Engine

February 13, 2019

Ecosia, a German startup with an internet search engine, today, has brought in enough revenues to enable it to plant 50 million trees. This equates to the removal of 2.5 million tonnes of Co2 from the atmosphere, according to the company.

And Ecosia is now planting a tree every second in Kenya, Brazil, Indonesia, Spain, Tanzania, Madagascar, Colombia, Peru, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Morocco, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana and Nicaragua with the profits it makes from advertisements on its search engine.

Ecosia has partnered with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, to get results for users, but receives a majority portion of any revenues. After covering its internal costs, everything left goes towards planting trees; Ecosia is a non-profit organization.

Growth for the startup, which started operations in 2009, has grown exponentially — particularly in its home country of Germany — as consumer concern about climate change increases, and the company is on track to reach 100 million trees planted by the end of 2019, according to the founder Christian Kroll.

“Climate change is a very real threat and if we’re to stop the world heating above the 1.5 degrees warned about in the IPCC report, we need to plant trees at scale,” he wrote in a statement. “People now use Ecosia in 183 countries and we’re really excited that users have helped us plant 50 million trees. However, the reality is that it is not enough. We need to change the way we eat, the way we farm, the way we generate our energy – we also need to plant a trillion trees. It sounds unachievable, but it is the equivalent of 10% of the world’s annual military spend.”

The startup partners with various projects globally to plant trees in locations where they can benefit the local economy and therefore positively contribute to communities, often agriculturally.

One of those partners is the Jane Goodall Institute of the renowned conservationist who is working to restore forest in Uganda, the natural habitat for chimpanzees.

We caught up with Kroll to find out more about how Ecosia started and its plans to promote sustainable agriculture practices as well.

(You can start using Ecosia straight away here and can add it as a free extension to your browser. You’ll see a little counter of how many trees your searches have planted – I am at 153 after two weeks.)

Where did the idea for Ecosia come from?

Before I started the company in 2009, I did a trip around the world. I had just finished university where I did business administration and I wanted to build a business that was about more than just making money but had a purpose. I spent most of my year away in Nepal and Argentina and I observed a lot of environmental problems, poverty, and global injustice. It became obvious to me that I wanted to do something to help combat that. At that time, the power of Google was already very obvious, and clearly making a lot of money through advertising, so I thought a search engine was a really interesting way to help people and the planet.

It took us four years to plant the first million trees, then we reached 25 million under a year ago, and we might even reach 100 million this year. The more users we have, the more trees we can plant. It’s our ambition to plant 1 trillion trees to help prevent a climate change catastrophe, which sounds like a big number but if we had just 15% of the revenue of Google, we could do that in 20 years. But there’s lots of room for us to grow; we have less than 1% market share and plenty of degraded land to plant on.

How and where do you plant trees?

We have 20 project partners, mostly in developing countries in the tropics — a lot in Africa, South America and Indonesia and usually NGOs who have been planting already for a while. So we finance the planting and in return we want proof and to make sure they meet our standards, not just for planting the trees but also taking care of them and any workers involved in the projects.

Ecosia project in Madagascar

We have lots of criteria for each project with basic requirements like no child labor, no monocultures. Also the price of a surviving tree needs to be very low, and the benefits of planting that tree need to be very high. We try to focus on biodiversity hotspots; areas with a lot of biodiversity but that’s heavily threatened. We try not to plant natural forests as that would be just a drop in the ocean and wouldn’t give economic opportunities to the community. All the tree planting is on community land, never private land.

We try to plant trees that will have as much of an impact as possible; we want to make sure they aren’t just planted but will have a benefit for the local people and nature. We believe trees only stay standing if they have an economic benefit directly or indirectly for the local people. So often they will be fruit trees, or they improve soil fertility and water retention, so the local people will understand their value if they are left standing. For example, in Burkina Faso we have been turning deserts into forests where people will then start to make an income by letting their animals graze there as well as some branches for firewood.

We aren’t necessarily planting in areas that have been deforested but plant to take pressure off natural forests that are still standing. Our trees might be harvested eventually as long as there are more trees planted than are harvested. And we won’t plant in areas where there haven’t been any forests before like the desert in Namibia which is a natural desert, unlike the Sahara which is a man-made desert.

The Sahara Desert was created by humans?
Ecosia project in Peru

Yes, bad human practices create deserts. Greece, Spain, Iran, and Iraq used to be completely forested but they were all destroyed by non-sustainable agricultural practices that degraded the land, and that’s what happened in the US with the dustbowl in the 1930s. It all used to be super fertile savannah but was destroyed by humans not understanding nature and destroying the soil.

We are trying to bring an understanding of nature back to the people. One farmer in the US who really understands how to farm and respect nature is Gabe Brown. If all farmers were like him, I wouldn’t worry about climate change anymore.

Are you considering regenerative agriculture projects too?

Of course with the tree planting projects, agriculture always plays a role. If it’s not right next to the trees, it’s somewhere in the landscape and so we are trying to promote regenerative practices.

We are also developing something here in Europe; we can’t just preach that everyone has to be regenerative and sustainable elsewhere but in your home country you have non-sustainable agriculture. So we started a project with Richard Perkins who has a small farm in Sweden and together we’ve created a sort of business competition to receive a €100k loan to pursue their plan. The requirements of the competition include that it needs to build a lot of soil and it needs to be profitable.

We’re also financing a few other projects in Europe including one with Benedikt Bösel in East Germany to implement agroforestry and the holistic grazing of cattle.

Are you using any technology tools?

As we are usually trying to plant a tree for 15 to 20 cents, and it only counts as a tree if it makes it to its third birthday, we can’t really afford fancy technology yet. So we try to work mostly with nature when it comes to plant technologies. We do use a tractor that has a plow that can crack open the soil to seed, as the soil is so degraded and dry you can no longer get your fingers into it. Cracking it helps the water to infiltrate too instead of staying on the surface. But when it comes to monitoring and measuring our projects, we use satellite images and drones to gather statistics to monitor them.

Find out more about Ecosia here.

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