Greening Our Digital Footprint: Searching for Good

This week’s instalment of the Greening Our Digital Footprint is dedicated to another immediate and effective way to lower the carbon emissions of our online activities: search engines.
 

As this Quartz article puts it, “despite the notion that the internet is a ‘cloud’, it actually relies on millions of physical servers in data centers around the world, which are connected with miles of undersea cables, switches, and routers, all requiring a lot of energy to run. Much of that energy comes from power sources that emit carbon dioxide into the air as they burn fossil fuels.”

While Google is committed to being environmentally-friendly––for example, by improving the energy efficiency of their data centers, investing in clean energy and participating in carbon-offsetting efforts––most other tech giants have not kept up with the pace of change required to make the infrastructure of the internet a more sustainable one. The same article by Quartz, for example, reported that Facebook’s data centers and business operations “resulted in 718,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2016, which is comparable to the annual CO2 output of about 77,500 US homes running on electricity.”

Other studies report that the energy-hungry data centers that power the internet could account for up to 14% of the world’s emission by 2040, a staggering number when we think that this number would be many times bigger than the global aviation industry’s footprint so far, which hovers at about 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions. When broken down in terms of individual searches, Google itself estimates that each sarch is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2, or roughly the same amount of energy required to turn on a 60-watt lightbulb for 17 seconds. As Search Engine Journal notes, “that might not sound like much, but at 79,009 searches per second, it all adds up. And that’s just for search, let alone other, more resource-intensive functionality, like maps or videos.”
 

Green Search Engine Alternatives
 

If your nonprofit would like to investigate ways to lower its overall digital footprint, considering the use of ‘alternative’ search engines might be a great tool to add to its sustainability strategy. Below we offer a preliminary list of suggestions for how to get started:
 

Open Green Web: is a new ethical search engine based on the world’s largest dataset of sustainably hosted sites. It is maintained by the Green Web Foundation and receives the support of the Next Generation Internet initiative, a program of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market. The project started with a set of browser plugins that allowed users to check the ‘greenness’ of the sites they visited from queries returned by search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo. The browser app then underlined sustainably hosted sites with a green dashed line to indicate a ‘green’ result based on information such as who hosts the site and where, whether it is hosted renewable energy or fossil-based electricity, etc. Today, the Foundation took the mission of the plugins one step forward by launching a search engine that only shows sustainably hosted sites and services in its results.


Ecosia: Ecosia is a green internet search engine that uses 80% of its advertising revenue to fund tree-planting projects around the world. This certified B-Corporation owns its own solar plant, which powers its servers with renewable energy and donates excess electricity to the grid. According to its estimates, 45 searches alone are sufficient to fund the planting of one tree, and to date Ecosia has planted over 70 million of them. According to the Green Stars Project, “if Ecosia were to become as big as Google, the projected impact would be staggering: enough trees to capture 15% of global CO2 emissions”, which is roughly equivalent to capturing emissions from all road vehicles.

 

Givero: is a search engine which allows users to select which causes they want to give back to through their searchers. The engine followers a privacy-first approach similar to that of DuckDuckGo, meaning that it doesn’t track users, does not retain history of searches, and does not link to third-party analytical tools to track user metrics. Givero donates half its revenue to a growing list of charities and nonprofits, ranging from 350.org to Mozilla and more.
 

Lilo: As the site puts it, “every search you do on the internet generates advertising revenue which collectively adds up to around €98 million a year.” Lilo is a French search engine that uses the money generated by online searches to give back to good causes. Users decide what their searches will support, and to date they have contributed over 3 million Euros to social and environmental projects!

 

Additional Resources
 

  • The Green Software Foundation is a non-profit with the mission to create a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling and best practices for building green software.
  • “Google and clean-energy startup Fervo have just signed the world’s first corporate agreement to develop a next-generation geothermal power project, which will provide an “always-on” carbon-free resource that can reduce our hourly reliance on fossil fuels.” (Google Cloud)
  • Creating a Climate Resilient Web (Unclouded Project)
  • Could your data center not just power your website, but also grow your salad? (Wholegrain Digital)
  • Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES)

 

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