When he was nine, Felix Finkbeiner held a class presentation on the climate crisis. It was then and there that the Plant-for-the-Planet foundation was born
For Felix Finkbeiner, the mission to plant trees must go hand-in-hand with a growing ecological understanding. Forest restoration strategies range from active planting, where trees are planted at regimented spaces throughout an area, to natural regeneration, where the area is protected and left to reseed itself, with lots of other planting strategies in between.
«If you actively intervene, then the most important question is which species do you select, so that you end up with as much of the biodiversity that would have existed in that place before whatever destruction event happened there», says Finkbeiner, «There are a lot of these choices in that process where some good ecological guidance is important».
Felix Finkbeiner is the founder of Germany-based tree-planting organization, Plant-for-the-Planet. «When you have a site that you want to restore, the first question you need to answer is which restoration strategy are you going to use. Do you actually need to plant trees yourself, or can natural regeneration be effective?»
Plant-for-the-Planet’s flagship project is based in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It boasts a 94% success rate of trees that progress from germination to mature growth, which comes down to a determination to test and refine planting strategies and discover what’s most effective. «There are a lot of restoration strategies that we’ve tested and are currently testing in our project in Yucatan to continually try to figure out how we can increase our survival rate and growth rates with what we’ve planted», says Finkbeiner, «One strategy that we are testing right now, is what proportion of the trees we plant are nitrogen fixers».
Nitrogen-fixing plants, often legumes, absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and deposit it into the soil, providing an essential nutrient for other vegetation to flourish. However, an overabundance of nitrogen-fixing plants could be damaging, so it’s needed to track data to get the number of nitrogen fixers just right.
«What we’re testing in our current experiment there is to see how we can optimize, in tropical dry forests, the proportion of nitrogen fixers among the total population of trees planted. Do we ideally plant 10%, 30% or 60% nitrogen fixers to optimize the growth? It’s not just the nitrogen fixers but of all the trees planted there. There’s lots of these ecological questions we’re investigating». Testing and the resulting data can be used to boost planting success for future projects, both for Plant-for-the-Planet, and other tree-planting organizations.
In 2007, when he was nine years old, Felix Finkbeiner held a class presentation on the climate crisis, ending with the statement, Let us plant in each country of Earth a million trees! He shared this presentation in other classes, then other schools, and within a few months, the Plant-for-the-Planet foundation was born.
In 2011, Plant-for-the-Planet was handed the United Nations Environment Program’s project of planting one billion trees. Plant-for-the-Planet took on this task at a point where it was succeeding. There was room for more growth, but the foundation wanted to know what that progress should look like. «We wanted to know how many trees could be planted globally», says Finkbeiner, who was 13 years old at the time. The Plant-for-the-Planet team searched for an ecologist to help them answer this question, eventually working with Tom Crowther, a postdoc student at the time.
Tom Crowther and his team decided that the best way to understand how many trees could be planted would be to figure out how many trees we currently have on the planet. The results showed that there are approximately three trillion trees on the planet, with 50% of trees lost since the beginning of human civilization. The data was released in Nature journal in 2016, which achieved unexpected media attention, including recognition by natural historian David Attenborough. It was a first step in Plant-for-the-Planet’s mission to quantify how many trees could be planted across the earth, and what difference that could make to the impact of carbon emissions on climate change.
After the success of the paper, «we worked with Tom to find funding», says Finkbeiner, «so that he could set up a lab dedicated to these global ecological questions. That turned into the Crowther Lab at ETH [in Zurich]». In 2019, the Crowther lab published a striking estimate: planting one trillion trees could be one of the most effective ways of solving climate change. The research and resulting awareness produced some high-profile support–even including United States President Donald Trump committing to planting trees in the US towards this goal. Coupled with the growing momentum of the Fridays For Future youth movement, 2019 was a progressive year for worldwide consciousness of the climate crisis.
Yet 2019 was also a tough year for climate activists, especially in the area of reforestation. Despite the success of the Crowther study, the research received criticism in the media and from other scientists and ecologists, concerned about the potential fallout of a gung-ho approach to tree planting without careful planning and ecological understanding. The world’s attention focused on wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, while at the same time, fires raged throughout the tropics. This resulted in a record loss of tree cover and biodiversity in some of the world’s richest areas of wildlife.
According to thinktank Climate Focus, deforestation remained at record highs in 2019, with an area of tree cover the size of the United Kingdom lost each year. As trees are burned and cut down in the tropics, they release carbon emissions equal to the total greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union.
For Plant-for-the-Planet, the effective way to move forward is to collaborate, both with other planting organizations and with scientists. «These projects have some sort of collaboration with academia, for an ecological understanding of the site that you’re restoring», says Finkbeiner. Academic collaboration has led Plant-for-the-Planet to pursue more planting projects closer to the equator, rather than temperate areas, such as North America, Europe, and most of Asia.
«First of all, because these areas tend to have a lot of forests anyway», says Finkbeiner, «and second, a tree in the tropics grows a lot faster than a tree in Germany or Northern Italy, and because of that, a tropical tree will capture a lot more carbon. In addition, planting a tree in Mexico tends to be cheaper than planting a tree in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, and because of that with the same amount of funding we can end up restoring far more forest».
In the Yucatan project, it costs just one Euro to plant a tree, which covers the labour cost of growing the sapling, clearing the land before planting, and post-planting clearing to ensure fast-growing grasses don’t compete for light with saplings. All of this work is done by rural workers. «We pay above average wages for that community. We now employ around 100 people on our site, which means that with their entire families about 500 people indirectly benefit from the money that we invest there. It’s not a huge thing but it contributes to local well-being», says Finkbeiner, «The vast majority of reforestation potential is in countries of the global south around the equator, where we need to spend a lot of money in reforestation.
Since it’s so labor intensive, it essentially means that this money is spread widely across a large community of people and creates a huge amount of jobs in local communities». Tree planting costs vary between projects, says Finkbeiner, «There are some specialized organizations that, for instance, focus on planting trees in high altitude, like a partner project of ours in the Andes in South America, that have higher costs».
Plant-for-the-Planet’s data-driven approach was a key driver in the development of a new app, launched in September 2019. It hosts the United Nations Environmental Program world tree counter and provides easy to use data-tracking software for all other tree planting programs that use it. Until now, there hasn’t been an effective model for tracking where trees are planted, what methods are used, and what level of success planters are having. There is also no reliable data on tree survival rates across projects, but Finkbeiner describes how survival rates can vary between 20% and the low 90% range.
«A lot of tree planting organizations don’t currently do a great job at collecting data about their projects», says Finkbeiner, «It can be tedious to collect this data and to go back and set up randomized plots to have a good understanding of the impact of your work. So one of the things that we’re doing right now with the Plant-For-The-Planet app is creating a simple tool that the tree planters on the ground can use without any expert knowledge or any training whatsoever with their own phone to collect sample data on some of the trees they have planted. Our goal is to make it easier for them to showcase the impact of their work, to then increase the willingness of people to fund their work».
Finkbeiner’s vision is that the Plant-For-The-Planet app can provide a central place for projects to register their work and share data. «For each project you will see where exactly they plant, what the average tree costs there, and a lot of other information, and you can donate to this project. We at Plant-For-The-Planet don’t take any of the money, but 100% of the money goes directly from you to that tree planting organization». This open-source app provides a way for donors to connect with projects that would otherwise have been obscure to donate to.
Finkbeiner shared the story of Say Trees in Bangalore, who are barely known outside of their city and the surrounding region. «A lot of these organizations that do work on the ground are not that good at fundraising internationally», says Finkbeiner. Only donors in India can receive a tax receipt for their money sent, and it can be difficult and expensive to send money internationally. Through the Plant-for-the-Planet app, donors from around the world can far more easily access Say Trees and donate directly with low transaction costs.
Soon, all donations through the Plant-for-the-Planet app will be tax-deductible for donors from around the world. Say Trees represent just one of thousands of organizations that would benefit greatly from collaboration with the Plant-for-the-Planet app.
Finkbeiner has journeyed with Plant-For-The-Planet throughout Germany, Europe, and now worldwide. He’s driven to move forward: train more children in more countries as climate activists, plant more trees, employ more workers, reach more decision-makers, support more planting projects. In the face of this enthusiasm, and the momentum of climate crisis awareness built during 2019, the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 threatens to slow this progress.
Felix Finkbeiner shared his hopes that the public eye wouldn’t be drawn away from the mission of tree planting to fight the climate crisis. The Plant-for-the-Planet tree counter shows that over 13.6 billion trees have been planted to date, but in order to meet the trillion tree goal, it’s essential that support for the cause keeps growing. Perhaps equally important is the increased collaboration of tree planting projects, in order to meet their common goals, «To get towards that goal of a trillion trees, we at Plant-for-the-Planet won’t be able to plant these trees ourselves. We will be far more effective if we help all other tree-planting organizations scale up their work as well», says Finkbeiner.