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Friday, May 24, 2024

Ecosia Launches Eco-friendly Browser

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The browser is the first to generate green energy, adding clean energy to the grid every day as a user browses, making it the greenest browser available globally.

Ecosia, the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine, announces the global launch of its eco-friendly browser. Available for desktop via a download page and mobile via app stores, the Ecosia Browser extends the company’s mission of environmental stewardship, empowering users to turn online browsing into real-world impact.

Founded by Christian Kroll in 2009, Ecosia was originally launched as a privacy-focused search engine, meaning it does not store user data or create personal profiles. I spoke to Michael Metcalf, the Chief Product Officer, to find out more.

A planet-first mission

Ecosia’s mission-driven purpose in action is distinct from the typical startups and scale-ups we profile. 

The tech company dedicates 100% of its profits to the planet and has collaborated with local communities in over 35 countries to plant more than 200 million trees. In 2014, Ecosia was the first company in Germany to be accredited as a B Corporation, and in 2017, it built the first of a growing portfolio of solar plants, which now produce enough energy to power all searches twice over. 

In 2018, Ecosia gave away its shares to the Purpose Foundation to ensure that the company could never be sold and that no one, including the founder, could profit from it or receive dividends. 

Metcalf explained:

“We’ve invested in solar energy for a number of years, currently at around 200 per cent of the energy usage for Ecosia searches. All clean energy, including the extra 25Wh per user, gets put back into the grid, crowding out fossil fuels. 

Ecosia re-invests the profits into climate impact initiatives, predominantly tree-planting, but also includes further solar investments (€37 million invested to date — in companies such as Zolar (which received a €23 million investment from Ecosia in 2022), wind power and regenerative agriculture Wildfarming.” 

More than just carbon offsetting

One of the most compelling aspects of Ecosia is that it focuses on holistic regeneration of biodiversity hotspots, not carbon offsetting. As a practice, carbon offsetting through tree planting is problematic because the trees take a long time to fully absorb the promised amount of CO2.

Metcalf explained: 

We have a dedicated tree team, a group of forestry and nature conservation experts, social business experts, economists and social scientists focused on finding the right partners to work with, synchronising with communities, and planting the right species to ensure our trees thrive.”

The company’s reforestation experts have a long-term, holistic vision:

“We don’t plant monocultures. We grow biodiverse forests and have planted over 900 species in over 35 countries where nature and people need them most.

Once our trees are planted, we monitor them for a minimum of three years using satellite technology, geo-tagging, photographic evidence and field visits. In fact, we’ve just announced a partnership with SpaceTech firm Kanop so we can monitor the health of our tree-planting projects through satellite images of biomass growth.

The Ecosia Browser is not the first privacy browser. Brave, Tor, Firefox, DuckDuckGo, and Vivaldi all come with a privacy-first approach.

Metcalf detailed: 

We have an in-built ad blocker that reduces the collection of user data and energy consumption. The lower energy consumption also extends battery life and consumes less electricity.”

Built on Chromium, the Ecosia Browser is augmented by robust security features, including password management and SSL encryption. Optimized for speed, loading pages are up to three times faster than most mainstream browsers, with an inbuilt ad-blocker that reduces user data and energy consumption.

However, the Ecosia Browser marks the world’s first browser to generate green energy. By building on its existing strategy, it produces enough renewable energy to power searches twice. 

Ecosia is committing to generate an additional 25Wh of clean energy per user each day they browse — enough to power a lightbulb for three hours.

Disrupting the Big Tech monopoly

As of March 24, Google had 65% and Safari 19% of the browser market share, so changing consumers’ browsing habits is a huge task for Ecosia. However, the EU’s recent Digital Markets Act (DMA) may aid in this, disrupting Big Tech’s monopoly and marking a major step forward for fair competition in the EU’s search market. 

Metcalf admits that it is hard to know what impact DIMA will have in practice: 

“We’re seeing a promising increase in users switching to Ecosia but it is still too early to say. It proves that when users are given the opportunity to choose alternative browsers and search engines, they do so.

The EC has now opened a case against Apple to further investigate their implementation of the DMA.

We have not received selection rates or any other meaningful datasets, so it is hard for us to solidly report on the effectiveness of the choice screen at this stage.”

Ecosia AI Chat

One of the most curious aspects of Ecosia’s browser is the integration of generative AI. Massive computing power and energy are required to train and run LLMs.

Research by SemiAnalysis estimates that implementing an AI similar to ChatGPT into every single Google search would require an annual electricity consumption of 29.2 TWh, about the same amount Ireland uses yearly. Fortunately, Nvidia cannot meet the required production capacity, and Google cannot fund its manufacturing soon. 

According to Metcalf, the company ran an array of initial tests on carbon usage. As part of the development of this generative AI-powered chatbot,

“Whilst not fully comprehensive, the research indicates that an additional 5 per cent of carbon emissions will occur from this switchover — of which Ecosia plans to invest further in solar, regenerative agriculture, and other nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, to account for this carbon footprint.”

He notes that this is only an estimation “as vendors such as OpenAI do not yet share carbon impact data with customers — we are pushing for this clarity and won’t scale our AI offering until we can be sure it’s not going to have an overtly negative climate impact.”

With Ecosia’s browsers, users can access dedicated green features such as its green leaf icon, climate pledge rating, and newly launched AI Chat, powered by OpenAI. 

Also Read: Balancing Growth with Sustainability and Security in AI

According to the company, the AI Chat generates ‘greener answers,’ employing a layered green persona to deliver tailored, sustainable solutions to users. A ‘Partnership Shop’ enables users to shop more sustainably. 

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