Ecosia: Could a search engine that plants trees really help save the Amazon?

‘Reforestation is essential but means nothing if we’re still watching the Amazon go up in smoke,’ says Greenpeace

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Monday 09 September 2019 07:28
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The Berlin-based search engine (pictured) donates 80 per cent of its advertising profits to tree-planting schemes which it runs in Brazil and elsewhere
The Berlin-based search engine (pictured) donates 80 per cent of its advertising profits to tree-planting schemes which it runs in Brazil and elsewhere

Images of the Amazon being ravaged by wildfires has unified the public in shock and sadness.

Scientists warn that these fires are destroying “the lungs of the Earth” which will seriously jeopardise our ability to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming.

In response to this destruction, people have been downloading a tree-planting search engine called Ecosia – the eco-friendly rival to Google – which has seen a 1,150 per cent surge in users. It has pledged to plant an additional 1 million trees in the next six months in response to Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environment policies.

The Berlin-based firm donates 80 per cent of its advertising profits to tree-planting schemes – which it runs in Brazil and elsewhere – and says it now plants a tree every 0.8 seconds.

It has been described as a “modern and inventive method of saving the world climate without a huge effort”. For many it might seem “too good to be true” – but is it?

Each month the company releases financial reports which show how it is spending money.

Its July 2019 report shows that 52 per cent of its total income was spent on tree-planting (which is 80 per cent of surplus revenue). This amounted to more than €800,000 (£725,000). It spent 5 per cent on advertising, 30 per cent on operational costs and 12 per cent was saved to fund future investments.

Organisations that work with Ecosia confirmed to online fact-checking website Snopes that they received the money as outlined in the financial report.

Experts agree that the company is a progressive and environmentally conscious organisation. However, funding tree-planting schemes must not distract people from stopping deforestation – much of which is driven by unregulated trade agreements with the EU and US.

“Users who have downloaded the browser since the Amazon fires obviously feel they are playing a part in helping plant trees in the Amazon, but it is too little to initiate the urgent large-scale action required,” said Andre Laperrière, executive director of UK-based NGO Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (Godan).

“What the Amazon needs at this stage is not more trees, it needs a policy level change at the government level, to truly make a difference. Temporary planting of trees only to be cut down by the industries and farming communities would be unhelpful.”

Brazil is home to 200 million cows and is the largest beef exporter in the world. The proposed EU-Mercosur free trade agreement could mean South American countries can increase their beef quota to 99,000 tonnes on a new low 7.5 per cent tariff.

Investigations have found meat farmed on illegal pasture in the Amazon can already be bought on the shelves of five major British supermarkets.

Mr Laperrière said global governments – particularly those that import Brazilian beef and agricultural produce – need to put pressure on the country to create better environmental certification standards. The EU and US are some of Brazil’s largest traders and hold considerable influence over how produce is grown.

Reducing beef consumption, avoiding food waste and shopping more ethically can also avoid environmental destruction. “The individual carbon footprints have the biggest impact, often in places hundreds of miles from your home,” said Mr Laperrière.

In an open letter published in April this year, more than 600 scientists and 300 Brazilian indigenous groups asked the EU to ensure that trade deals with Brazil respect the environment.

Aerial footage shows Amazon wildfires burning and devastation left behind

Richard George, head of forests at Greenpeace UK, agreed that reforestation is essential but means nothing if the Amazon is still going up in smoke. He said people can make a difference by eating less meat and dairy and eating more plant-based foods.

“Alongside this, governments must suspend trade deals and companies suspend purchasing until the Amazon and its people are protected – we can all put pressure on them to do this ... We can’t just plant our way out of the climate emergency by using a different search engine – if only it were that simple,” he said.

According to Anna Kitulagoda from WWF-UK, it is important that tree-planting projects – although important – don’t make people lose focus from tackling deforestation.

“Well-designed projects to plant trees – ensuring the right trees in the right places – are urgently needed. But it’s critical that projects like these continue to complement and don’t replace a focus on tackling deforestation, and the loss of the most carbon and biodiversity-rich forests on our planet: our tropical rainforests,” she said.

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