A leader in climate action, Ecosia wants to inspire other businesses to do better

An interview with Ecosia’s COO, Wolfgang Oels

This article by Anne-Sophie Clulow Garrigou will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Located in the hype neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin, Ecosia’s offices are full of young-ish experts motivated to make a difference. The company’s COO, Dr. Wolfgang Oels, has a different background than a lot of others here: “I used to be the youngest person in every team I worked in before, but here I may be the oldest,” he laughs. Oels studied engineering and worked for a consultancy initially. “I always wanted to write a PhD on a topic that matters and it ended up being about renewable energy, or more precisely decentralisation of energy generation,” he explains. Soon after that, Oels worked for Q-Cells, which became in 2005 the biggest solar cell production company in the world. For three years, he worked for a solar module start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area. “When I came back to Europe, I was working for a global champion in a more traditional industry hoping to produce regular goods in a green way. When the company was restructured and moved to the United States, Oels, then in the middle of his work career, asked himself: “Do I want to do the same thing with the other half of my working life, or do I want to reinvent myself?”. He continues: “I knew that I wanted to work in something truly green again. I also wanted to work part-time, because I have three little girls. I’ve been travelling around the world for quite a while, and I didn’t want to miss those next 10-15 years.” When Ecosia, “the search engine that plants trees” advertised a job opening for a part-time COO in 2016, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Supporting local organisations in reforestation projects

Ecosia uses the advertising revenue from its users’ searches to plant trees where they are needed the most. When he first joined the company, Wolfgang Oels wanted to see how the trees were being planted. At that time, Ecosia had only implemented three projects, and the expert went to one of them, in Madagascar. This first trip with the company was an eye-opener for Oels. “People there live in huts and they have a little garden where they harvest rice. They sometimes have solar lights and very modest living conditions,” he recalls. From his discussion with the population, he learned that a bad rice harvest means misery. “People do still die of hunger and many people are also unable to send their kids to school, as you’d still need to have a modest income to do so. For the first time I’ve seen and felt how having forest would make a difference, and how having an income would make a difference for them,” explains Oels.

Ecosia is now working on planting projects in countries like Burkina Faso, Kenya, Columbia, Peru, or Indonesia. In order to choose where and with which organisations they are going to partner with, Ecosia focuses on biodiversity hotspots: areas where a lot of species are on the brink of being extinct. “We ask ourselves three questions: Why are the trees gone? Why does it need us? Why do we think that this time the trees will last? And very often we don’t have complete answers to those questions, so there is a bit of trust and hope, but we do look at track records of the organisation. We initially make one-year contracts with organisations where we agree on the frame.” The company discusses with their partners what trees are going to be planted, considering the species that are endemic to the areas, and trees that will provide income to the population. Once the organisation defines a proposal, Ecosia analyzes the tree price. “We want to pay them a fair price but we also don’t want to overpay because we need the projects to be cost effective. We never choose the organisation only with respect to the price of the tree. Planting a tree in Burkina Faso is much more expensive than planting a tree in Madagascar, but both biodiversity hotspots should be preserved. So the price is never the decisive factor, but we do discuss the cost structure with the organisation, and if we think it’s reasonable we agree on it.”

“For us, it’s not just about trees. It’s about humans and it’s about the people who live there. The social effect of our project is important, because while we, all of us here, live outside those local communities, we do benefit from them of course through the climate effect.”

Beyond money, Ecosia tries to exchange best practices between projects and to inspire partners with new concepts. “In Burkina Faso for instance, we brought in a specialist for regenerative agriculture and permaculture, which is absolutely fascinating and a wonderful vision for what agriculture could look like,” remembers Oels. The areas of Burkina in which Ecosia works look like deserts, but there is enough rain. It just washes off quickly, because the soil is so hard.  Our expert started to dig trenches so the water is kept in the area, can sink in and raise water levels, which then allows for agriculture, and indeed better tree planting.

Ecosia also uses satellite data to see if the trees are still alive after a few years, and if, in short, the project was successful. The images provided by satellite shows if the area is greener than it was before and allows Ecosia to “very efficiently and effectively record and learn about the long-term sustainability of what we’re doing,” explains Oels.

Empowering communities on the ground

The Berlin-based company is not sending a team of people from Europe to plant trees there. Instead, they support local organisations that are already working on the ground and have specific knowledge of reforestation in the area. “Specific knowledge that Ecosia might not have,” explains Oels. He continues: “Setting up the planting organisation somewhere requires a huge amount of network, of capabilities, of legal infrastructure. It would take years at least to set that up and we would fail miserably I think.”

Whenever the team at Ecosia ask themselves why are the trees gone, or why do they think the tree will stay this time, they know that the answer is very often linked to the people living in the area. “The community has to truly believe that this is something they need. They have to put in their own effort as well. We are not paying them for our trees. What we do is support them to plant their own trees,” explains Oels. “For us, it’s not just about trees. It’s about humans and it’s about the people who live there. The social effect of our project is important, because while we, all of us here, live outside those local communities, we do benefit from them of course through the climate effect.”

Most of the people working in those local organisations grew up in the area, they have been living and working there their entire life and they have a very good understanding of the specifics of the local area. Ecosia, on the other hand, trusts their partners on the ground to convince the population of the importance of planting trees and preserving the environment.

In some cases, the tech company expects that the tree planting projects will provide different sources of food so that the population can base their nutrition on a more diverse range of products, to avoid famine. “I once paid a visit to one of our projects in Madagascar,” recalls Oels, who was able to speak to the population of the rural communities with the help of a translator. “I wouldn’t say they are concerned about climate change, they are concerned about survival. Our partners told us that some of them have seen their children die of hunger. It’s a very rough environment. People basically feed themselves on rice, and if the harvest is not good, they are in deep trouble.” The impact of these projects is therefore expected to be very positive, especially in the context of the climate crisis, where rising temperatures due to human activity interferes with weather patterns and increases the likelihood of heat waves and droughts, threatening many regions’ food supply.

Our common responsibility

I couldn’t stop myself from speaking to Wolfgang about the impact of the policies put in place by the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and what happened to the Amazon forest last year. The populist president of Brazil, self-dubbed “Capitan Chainsaw”, has killed environmental policies that helped the country achieve spectacular emission reductions in the past decade. The results were the highest Amazon deforestation rates in a decade, a spike in land invasions and the murder of many indigenous leaders. Ecosia has been quite outspoken about Bolsonaro’s policies since his election, and particularly during the fires, that devastated the rainforest.

Oels says: “I’m not an expert on this but my understanding of this situation is that trees in a forest like the Amazon don’t burn unless you set them on fire. This is why evolution did not provide us there with species that are resistant against fires. So if those forests are burnt, they won’t regrow as it was before. Something else will regrow. And it will take a very, very, very long time until something will grow back that closely matches the diversity and biological value of what has been there and what has been destroyed. In short, what is being burned there is being burnt forever. So yes, we can plant new trees, but unfortunately it will not make up for what has happened.”

The impact of Bolsonaro’s policies are incommensurable and it’s still difficult to understand the scope of the impacts. Scientists have said that Amazon blazes are likely speeding up the melting of Andean glaciers, disrupting the water supply for tens of millions of people. However this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Bolsonaro was elected promising to “open the Amazon for business”. I asked Wolfgang what that made him feel like. “Of course, I will keep on trying to work against that, and then trying to rebuild to some degree what has been lost, and trying to put in with what our generation needs to do in order to avert climate collapse as much as possible. But look: We’re all looking at Bolsonaro like he is the bad guy doing all the bad stuff. And this is all happening far away in Brazil, so we can all sit here in Berlin and be angry about what he is doing. But to be honest, probably you and I have stopped eating meat that is fed from the soil that comes from there, but lots of other people here haven’t. Our politicians allow for that to happen. They are not banning the import of soy, which is basically the main reason for the destruction of tropical rainforests. Our politicians here are even discussing making it simpler, with the Mercosur trade agreement. So instead of pointing fingers at Bolsonaro, let’s look at Angela Merkel, let’s look at Macron. And of course, the problem is beyond those people. We need to look at the structures that constrain people in charge to behave like this. Some of them might want to change something, but they are constrained in order to remain in the structure. So I think we need to adapt, advance, and improve our democratic systems that basically come from the 17th century. Hoping that things will change with this president or this prime minister is not going to be enough and we need systemic fundamental change.”

Using its platform to change the world 

I was talking to a friend from Tenerife a few weeks back, and I was surprised that he knew about Ecosia. But he was also kind of skeptical: “How legit can this be?”, he asked. If a rather small company can invest so much money in tree-planting, then how much money is Google making, right? So I asked Oels. “Well, first of all: yes. Google is indeed making an insane amount of money. Google makes 40 billion of US dollars in revenue per quarter, almost 10bn in profits. So it is a very profitable industry indeed.

So how does this industry work?, you might ask. “Except for China and Russia, there are basically two companies in the world that have an index for the entire web: one is Google and one is Microsoft. And all the other search engines basically get their search results from one of those two,” says Wolfgang Oels. Ecosia gets its search results from Microsoft, and gets paid from the advertisements of the search results, which are identified on the top of the page. So basically, if someone clicks on that advertisement, then money is paid from the advertiser to Microsoft Bing first, and after their deductions it is sent to Ecosia. Ecosia’s revenue almost entirely consists of this.

Ecosia, who has about 15 million users monthly, is using its platform to raise awareness for climate action. “We have a bit of their attention and so we can remind them about the Fridays for Future demonstrations, for instance.” The organisation is not allowed to change the order of the search results that they get from Bing, but since last year has started to add a little green leaf next to results that come from companies that are B Corps certified, or companies that have a better environmental impact. Oels explains: “I think by doing this we can draw attention to specific issues and make some things grow, and others hopefully vanish.”

Ecosia has become one of those – rather small – companies with a huge power of influence today. A lot of people are looking at what they are doing, and the company is using this influence to support the climate movement. In 2019, Ecosia went as far as supporting their employees if they wanted to join the climate protests, considering this as working time. Ecosia’s CEO Christian Kroll also announced that the company would pay the employees lawyer fees if they ever got arrested during a peaceful climate protest.

From Berlin, it seems like Ecosia is trying to create a climate movement in the business sector, and really wants to encourage other businesses to follow suit. “I hope it does. And this is why we talk about it so much. We hope to inspire other companies to have the courage to do the same. And that doesn’t stop at climate activism,” continues Oels. He explains: Ecosia has always been 100% renewable energy powered,  but a few years ago the company started to look at their partners’ footprint as well , and to build solar systems to make up for the grey energy their partners were still using. “When you search on Ecosia, the search will go through Microsoft, and their servers should run on renewable energy as well, but they’re not doing so 100%. So, we have built the infrastructure so that every search on Ecosia will be met by 100% renewable electricity. But, then we thought that actually a hundred percent is boring, isn’t it? I mean, it’s what everyone needs to do in a very short time. It’s basically the minimum. So the frontrunners, the pioneers, can’t stop at a hundred percent. So what we say is that we want to become two hundred percent renewable. And we already started a project to accomplish this. Then, every search on Ecosia will crowd out dirty lignite, nuclear and coal power plants, and increase the share of renewable energy in the grid. We hope to inspire other pioneers to also go way beyond 100%, to maybe 200%, 300% and more.”

Just before I left, I asked Wolfgang if he had a call to action to share with The Beam readers, something that maybe goes beyond Ecosia’s work and mission. Here is his answer: “We need fundamental change. We need an energy revolution, away from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy. We need an agricultural revolution away from monoculture-based industrial agriculture. We need an agriculture that grows soil again by means of true regenerative agriculture practices. We need a revolution in our transportation systems. We can not just drive around with the self-driven electric cars: that’s not a sustainable transportation model for the future. Our transportation needs to be based on public electric transportation. We need to free ourselves from the immense space that is taken up in our cities by cars. In order to do all that, we need a revolution of our financial system. Because all of the companies that are working in these destructive areas are funded by banks. Right now we allow banks to basically create their own money and then fund all those companies that destroy us. It is absolutely absurd. So we just need to constrain the ability of banks to create money and we need to tie that privilege to benefit our societies. In order to accomplish all of this, we also need a revolution in our democratic systems which currently treat companies as citizens and grant higher influence to billionaires. And we cannot just concentrate on one of these revolutions. We have to be active in all of those sectors at the same time.”

While progress on climate change has been very slow — and in some cases, declining — more and more voices are making the case for why radical action is needed. Ecosia is one of them.

 


 

Dr. Wolfgang Oels is Ecosia’s COO. He has a PhD in Energy Economics and previously worked as Operations Executive in the Solar Energy Industry both in Germany and California.