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Using digital technologies to combat climate change and its impacts

Provide a case study on how digital technology is used to combat climate change.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 13 aims to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Forests, which cover over 30% of the Earth’s land, are an important natural source of climate balance, biodiversity, and protection from climate change and its effects. Yet every year we lose around 50,000 square miles of forest to deforestation, which exacerbates climate change by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, destroying areas which give off oxygen and sequester carbon, and damaging and wiping out the habitats of whole species of animals. Much of this destruction is deliberate. In areas of Indonesia, for example, forests are burnt to create space for palm oil plantations. In the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, logging is often conducted illegally both in order to sell the wood and to create space for, for example, cattle farms.

Searching for an answer

Tree-planting programmes have become a common method of addressing deforestation around the world. While such projects rarely seek to reforest deforested areas, because of the danger to people conducting such work and the likelihood of repeated deforestation, they do begin a process of increasing tree cover. However, most programmes lack the scale required to contribute as much to reforestation as they do to public awareness of both the problem of deforestation and this potential solution. Ecosia, a Berlin-based technology company, was founded to overcome some of these issues in addressing SDG 13.

The company uses its search engine, a technology used by billions of people every day, to generate revenue, the profits from which are spent on tree-planting projects all over the world. When a user searches the internet using Ecosia, companies pay for their adverts to appear in the search results. After covering its costs, Ecosia spends all profits planting trees. Over 500,000,000 searches are now conducted every month on Ecosia, which had planted almost 159,000,000 trees using this method by September 2022.

Costs of adopting the technology

Ecosia’s method of addressing sustainability is not only free – and profitable – but the company is also fully transparent about its revenue and expenses, publishing a monthly report which includes the amount spent in each country currently being worked in and its cash reserves for planting. In July 2022, the last month for which a report was available at the time of writing, Ecosia’s revenue was €3,152,372 (about $AUD4.7m) and the company planted 4,711,672 trees.

Benefits of using the technology

Among the chief benefits of using a search engine to generate revenue to plant trees is the simplicity. Many cases of businesses developing a more sustainable approach to commerce involve incurring costs or re-engineering their business models. Ecosia has taken a proven business model and runs its core business in much the same way that its for-profit competitors. As a result, the business model is a tried and tested one which enables climate-conscious individuals and organizations (the company has begun managing organizational accounts so that, for example, universities can adopt Ecosia as their default search engine) to adopt a service they might use dozens of times in day at no extra cost to themselves – and to evangelize about that service.

Potential barriers, problems, and challenges

Although from both a technological and a cost perspective there are few challenges to be overcome by Ecosia, the company has entered a market dominated by some of the world’s largest corporations. Alphabet’s Google search engine holds 92% of the global search engine market. In the few markets in which Google does not operate, local rivals have a tight grip on their home market, for example in China, where Baidu has about two-thirds of the market. Market penetration is therefore an issue, though Ecosia continues to grow steadily year-on-year. From a climate perspective, perhaps the main risk is that poor management of reforested areas can actually harm local environments and the climate (Persio, 2021).

Lessons learned

The main lesson learned from the Ecosia case is that pro-climate efforts by businesses do not have to be complex, expensive, or rely on legislation to change corporate behaviour. Firms can use existing business models to enhance efforts to resist climate change.

© RMIT 2023
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Advancing Social Impact with Digital Technologies

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