“Planting a tree is easy, bringing back a forest is hard.”
Those are the words of Felix Finkbeiner, who at 24, has now spent the majority of his life focused on fighting climate change through tree planting and forest restoration. And he’s trying to get the whole world involved.
Finkbeiner is the founder and CEO of Plant For The Planet. The organization runs workshops to empower youth to become “ambassadors for climate justice” and encourage the public to join the movement and plant trees.
You don’t have to get hands dirty, however, to get involved. You can donate to have a tree planted at one of the forest restoration sites Plant For The Planet partners with and then receive updates on when and where your tree is getting planted.
“You can see exactly where they are restoring forests. You can then see what species they’re planting, what planting density…you can also see exactly what one tree costs there. And if you’d like one of these projects, you can donate directly to it,” Finkbeiner told CNN. “We’ve now also built tools (software and apps) that these companies and organizations can notify you when your tree is actually planted, so you don’t just feel like you’ve just given money somewhere. You can actually see what happens with it.”
A movement takes root
The idea started to blossom from Finkbeiner 15 years ago in Germany when he was 9 years old. He had just learned about Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and whose work with the Green Belt Movement helped plant nearly 30 million trees in Africa. Inspired by her work, Finkbeiner announced to his fourth grade class that they should plant a million trees in every country.
“I think a million was just the biggest number I could come up with and there was absolutely no plan whatsoever of how we were going to get there.”
But his motivational speech slowly took root. Finkbeiner and his fellow students planted their first tree at their school, an event that was covered by the local press, and his idea began to branch out to other schools.
Schools and the youth movement have been a big part of Plant For The Planet’s success. The group has over 90,000 ambassadors for climate justice across the globe.
By 2010, Plant For The Planet had put a million trees in the ground. Then in 2011, Finkbeiner spoke at the UN following in Maathai’s footsteps. The Nobel laureate, who passed away in 2011, was working with the United Nations Environment Programme on the Billion Tree Campaign. Plant For The Planet took the reins of the campaign and upped its goal to a trillion trees.
Why a trillion? That’s how many scientists believe there is currently room for on Earth and that amount would help absorb levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that could make a impact on the climate crisis.
Many in the scientific community, however, note that planting trees is not going to solve the climate crisis on its own. It takes decades for trees to be able to grow enough in order to capture any significant amount of carbon, assuming they survive wildfires and other threats.
But Finkbeiner is quick to point out, the trillion trees mission is not just about planting, but also restoring.
“There are a range of different restoration methods and depending on what your site conditions are and what ecosystem you’re working in, sometimes planting a tree is the most effective thing you can do. Sometimes natural regeneration is much more effective and much more efficient.”
Finkbeiner says the world currently has about three trillion trees, but used to have six trillion. He says that the world hit peak deforestation in the 1980’s when we used to lose about 30 billion trees a year. Now Finkbeiner says it’s only 10 billion a year.
“Although using the word ‘only’ for 10 billion is rather inappropriate,” Finkbeiner said. “To give you a sense of scale, all of Germany has about 8 billion trees. So, the annual forest loss is a little more than all of the trees in Germany.”
A greener tomorrow
While deforestation has slowed down, the need to combat climate change is still dire. It’s why Plant For The Planet’s forest restoration projects are one of the foundation’s major initiatives.
They currently have restoration sites in Spain, Ghana and Ethiopia, but their biggest one is on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Since the project’s start in 2015, Plant For The Planet has planted almost 8 million trees there. Finkbeiner now splits his time between the restoration site in Mexico and working on his PhD in Switzerland. The goal is to plant around 3 million trees there this year and then 100 million in Mexico by 2030.
Plant For The Planet is making progress towards bringing back a trillion trees worldwide, but they don’t have an exact timeline just yet. The more people that get involved, the faster the goal can be met and the greener the Earth can get.
Finkbeiner says he’s optimistic about the steps being taken to fight climate change but he is still concerned.
“We made such massive progress in renewable technology that actually preventing a climate crisis is now much cheaper than we would have ever dared to dream up 20 years ago,” Finkbeiner said. “But by all of that, we are still not reducing our global carbon emissions. Every year we are emitting more carbon than the year before.”
15 years and millions of trees of later, Finkbeiner is just happy to have planted a seed of hope for the future.
“It’s been a crazy amount of fun I’ve had in the process over the years. Looking at all of these different areas from children and youth education to actual restoration, which is amazing, to the actual science of ecology. Also, our software work (that monitors forest restoration and tree mapping) all that has been super rewarding and really exciting to get to work on.”