Green Search Engine or Greenwashing?

Amazonas Photo via

“Internet users will from today be able to help protect the rainforest while they search,” proclaimed the UK newspaper, The Guardian, in a story today about a new search engine company called Ecosia that plans to donate 80 percent of its profits to the environmental group WWF.  Cash, the company’s founder says, that will reach into the billions of dollars each year.

That could mean a lot of forest conservation. According to a spokesman for the environmental group quoted in the story, the average user could protect 2,000 square meters of rainforest yearly. That’s the paltry size of a hockey field. But for every 1 percent of global internet users who migrate to Ecosia, an entire Switzerland-size chunk of Brazilian paradise could be saved, according to WWF. You can even activate a widget on your screen that tallies up how many acres of rainforest you are personally responsible for rescuing.

As someone who spends lots of time every day searching the Internet for work – as well as for movie show times and other such R&R reasons – I was horrified when I first learned how much energy search engines consume. According to one estimate, two Google searches produces as much carbon dioxide as it takes to boil a kettle of water. True, those figures are controversial; Google protested, asserting that most simple searches involve many fewer climate warming emissions. Whatever the true figures, the upshot is searching the web – like everything else in life – comes with carbon consequences.

Given the explosion of “green” search engines in the last few years, I’m apparently not the only one cringing over her tangled web footprint. The story lists several other so-called eco-friendly search platforms. They include EcoSearch, GoodSearch, GoodTree, Green Maven, EcoSeek, Treehoo and Ecocho.

Ecosia, the engine that debuted today,  says it’s the greenest of them all. But are any of them truly green?

While Ecosia claims to work as well as Bingo or Yahoo, the press release news story makes no mention of how its energy consumption stacks up next to estimates for Bingo, Yahoo … or Google. And, the other engines that claim to be green appear to be engaging in similar public relationality. EcoSearch, GoodSearch and GoodTree give part of their proceeds from advertising to environmental groups, while users of Treehoo and Ecoho can pay for carbon offsets, according to the story.

Worthy causes?  Probably.  Questions have been raised, however, about whether such carbon payoff schemes really cut the amount of pollution spewed into the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet. I devote an entire chapter in my book to the controversy over what some critics have equated with the Roman Catholic Church‘s medieval system of indulgences. Even the dandy Ecosia widget that tallies up the amount of rainforest saved could potentially work against reducing emissions; The notion that you can save trees with every click could conceivably encourage people to query more. At the least, it would ease our guilt without requiring us to actually consume less energy. Saving forests is an excellent idea for a variety of reasons – their ability to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and sequester them, being but one.  Business models like Ecosia’s, on the other hand, seem more gray than green.

About greendistrict

I'm Christine MacDonald, a journalist and the author of the book: "Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone B

Posted on December 3, 2009, in Carbon footprint, greenwash and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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