Last year I switched my default search engine twice. First from Bing to Duck Duck Go. It felt different but during my Bing de-listing fiasco I learned that Duck Duck Go and lots of other smaller search engines use the Bing Index. One of the more interesting engines I learned about was Ecosia, a green search engine that I switched to a couple months ago.
Ecosia’s twist on the search engine game is that for every ~50 searches you do, they plant 1 tree. They serve you ads and that revenue pays for trees. It seems gimmicky or unbelievable, but Ecosia posts all their financials are on their website. I find that to be a refreshing amount of transparency from a search engine. According to the website, in October they financed the planting of ~2.5 million trees in 12 different countries. That’s admirable.
Getting rewarded by a search engine for searching isn’t new to me. I switched to Bing in 2015 as part of #davegoeswindows and one neat side effect was that I got “Bing Bucks” for my searches which I could convert into gift cards to use at real stores; paid to play. For years I ran a grift of converting Bing Bucks into Robux for the kids. Now I’m doing that same grift, but for trees for my children’s future. In a couple months since switching I’ve funded 20 trees which feels nice.
How big of a difference can a “green” search engine make? Good question and I spent a dumb amount of time looking into this. Based on some research Ecosia calculates that one search offsets 50kg of CO₂.
“The tree planting that we’re doing, with each search, you’re actually removing around 50 kilograms of CO₂.” Source: PCMag
Is 50kg a lot? It sounds like a lot, but I need that in terms I understand. This summer I learned that a gallon of gas weighs 6.3lbs (2.8kg) yet produces 20lbs (9kg) of CO₂. Gas is a form of carbon emissions I understand, so let’s use that as a baseline.
If my math is correct and every search removes 50kg of CO₂… that’s equal to offsetting 5.5 gallons of gas… or about one jerrycan.
According to FuelEconomy.gov, the average non-hybrid/non-electric SUV in 2024 gets an average of ~20.6 MPG1. One search then offsets ~113 miles of driving in an SUV2. Making that specific to my life, it takes three searches to offset a tank of gas in my Volvo and seven for my F-150. Those numbers are good enough to make me a bit skeptical.
Planting trees isn’t a climate silver bullet3. Trees take years to grow and a gallon of gas burns in less than an hour. Trees will struggle to grow in hotter climates as well. There’s no replacement for carbon reduction…but —as we say in Texas— it’s not nothing? Tree planting is potentially a 220 gigaton opportunity and currently the only viable form of carbon capture and storage.
I looked into how much planting a tree costs and the prices vary from $1 to $3 dollars. The Arbor Day Foundation costs $1/tree, The Nature Conservancy and Trees, Water, People both cost ~$2/tree. And Ecosia’s own Ecosia Tree Store comes in at the highest at $3/tree. That means by searching I’ve planted anywhere from $20-$60 worth of trees. It might be more effective if I donated a lump sum and installed an ad blocker; but Ecosia’s trees are an entirely passive benefit and that makes it sustainable for me. I think about it like putting a solar panel on my air conditioner.
Ecosia’s use of the Bing Index might be a dealbreaker for some, but all that might be changing! Due to a price hike in the Bing Index, Ecosia announced that in certain locales they’re switching to the Google Index. I’ve used Bing’s Index for years so this isn’t a problem for me, but I understand people are picky about their search results. I’d also call out that the entire SEO ecosystem is changing with the advent of AI and the reliability of search results will experience a tectonic shift. Speaking of AI… at the end of that same announcement post, Ecosia says they’re piloting an experimental AI Chat feature.
Ecosia is a feel-good search engine and I love the idea of a benefit-corp style search engine. I want my “behavioral exhaust” (Zubhoff, 2019) to replenish the environment rather than fund the techno-monopoly war chest. Ecosia is a welcome change in my online life. It’s well-designed compared to other search engines and planting 20 trees feels good. If we all pointed our search bars at Ecosia for a while, what kind of difference could we make. Alone, we will never make a dent in the climate but together we stand a chance.
And that’s where I wanted to end this review but…
I wanted this to be a review of a new’ish search engine that I enjoy, but I need to address the LLM in the room. In short, the AI feature seems off-brand for Ecosia –like Captain Planet getting into Bitcoin. At 500ml of water for every 20 prompts or 1.7 billion gallons of water to train GPT, LLMs use a lot of energy and resources. Ecosia claims they are able to offset the carbon costs of LLMs – I’d love to see more data on this – but when every search engine is experimenting in this space, it’d be nice to have an option that’s taking a different path.
More calculations: You’d need 28.3 billion searches to offset the 3.2 trillion miles driven in the US every year and 3.4 billion searches to offset California’s 390 billion miles per year. For comparison, Google makes 8.5 billion searches per day and Bing sees 900 million searches per day. ↩
There’s good criticism on why planting trees isn’t the solution (Bloomberg 2023, PBS 2023, TEDed 2023, Vox 2021, BioScience 2020) but I don’t think a handful of failed naive attempts means we should write the whole project off. We’re learning that native species > non-native species, reforestation > afforestation, pastoralists > industrialists, and long-term natural regrowth > plantations. Climate justice is also entangled with economic justice so we need to empower local communities. ↩