The power of reforestation: An interview with Felix Finkbeiner from Plant-for-the-Planet

In 2007, 9-year-old Felix Finkbeiner founded the organization Plant-for-the-Planet and his goal became to plant as many trees as he could to advocate for climate mitigation. Only three years later, the organization celebrated with planting their one millionth tree. The slogan ‘Stop Talking, Start Planting’ became a social media success as young people all around the world drew attention to the importance of planting trees. In 2011 the UN General Assembly handed the Trillion Tree Campaign to Plant-for-the-Planet. The world currently has three trillion trees and can host a trillion more. Trees are powerful in combating climate change, so the Trillion Trees Campaign is important in buying time to reduce CO2 emissions. Partner organizations all around the world are committed to this campaign and until now 14 billion trees in over 130 countries have been planted. The aim is to repopulate areas with trees and to work towards a carbon neutral world. Restoring deforested areas and allowing for forests to take back its natural habitat. 

I had the chance interview Felix Finkbeiner, the environmentalist who founded the international tree-planting organization Plant-for-the-Planet. Currently he is conducting field research for his PhD in Mexico and took the time to explain to me what his organization is doing to rehabilitate forests and how this can help for the race against climate change. 

What is unique about Plant-for-the-Planet?

Felix Finkbeiner (FF): I don’t necessarily believe that Plant-for-the-Planet is unique in terms of what we do. We stick to the basics and to the demands of what is needed today in combating climate change. We are an NGO so we have our limits too, but we do the best with what we have. There are two things that we emphasise and that other organizations might do differently. The first one is including the youth and young leaders as much as possible, this we have been doing since the early days of Plant-for-the-Planet. We urged the youth to demand more accountability on their government leaders in addressing climate change, as was initially the case in Germany where we started getting more international attention especially following our “Stop talking, Start Planting” campaign. At the time, in 2007, it was rare for children to address these grievances directly to their government leaders but today it has become far more common thanks to other fantastic youth-lead organizations such as Fridays for Future. Secondly, we emphasize on restoring forests to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Luckily, there are hundreds of organizations to do this around the world. This combination is important as we can campaign globally but also carry out research and plant trees. We are always looking for new ways to get the message across and involve as many people as possible. 

Who are your partner organizations?

FF: We created a Webapp to bring transparency into the reforestation projects around the world. It can be overwhelming to choose what project to support and the Webapp is designed to navigate you through satellite imagery across the different forestation projects we collaborate with. If you find a project that you love, you can support them directly through the app by making a donation. Unlike other platforms, Plan-for-the-Planet does not keep a share of these donations, but it helps give an overview of the global collaboration as an overall support mechanism for our One Trillion Trees mission. This is a huge amount of reforestation work and without our partner organizations we would not be able to restore even 1/1,000 of deforested areas. In other words, we would need 10,000 reforestation efforts such as Plant-for-the-Planet to achieve this initiative. Our goal is to restore 100 million trees by 2030. It seems like a lot but not all trees have to be planted, some need regeneration support in order to fight successfully against climate change. This can be the case when there are existing intact forests nearby, regeneration projects would then seek to support the original ecosystem as it represents a great source of seeds, insects and birds.  

So how can someone imagine the scale of this project?

FF: So, imagine we have an area of 10,000 hectares of a degraded and deforested land and we want to turn it back into a forest. One option is to plant trees on it, which would amount to roughly 10 million trees and represent a significant cost. The other extreme option would be to build a fence around it and prevent further deforestation. Our mission is to only preserve and rebuild forests that once were forests in the past. And if we want to achieve that, the only way to do it is to place a fence around the area and let it regenerate itself. Of course, it depends on whether there are any forests nearby, if there are none, a protective fence will likely prove insufficient to help it grow back. We have to optimize maximum carbon intake by making sure that the forests are growing in a natural way. Only by restoring these forests, we will be able to keep temperature rise below 2°C. 

In your experience, what can businesses do to help? 

FF: Reforesting such vast areas does require funding. A lot of funding. Governments alone will be unable to support these types of plans, so we need the private sector to finance this. One thing that plays to our advantage, is that consumer pressure for companies to become carbon neutral is increasing especially thanks to media coverage. This means that private actors are more likely to compensate their carbon footprints by engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects such as reforestations efforts. Even though this is a great start, we do not love this approach. Planting trees cannot solve climate change if companies continue having a carbon footprint, no matter if they compensate by planting trees. Planting trees is not the solution, it is a duty in our efforts towards a decarbonized system. So, when companies partner with us, they need to reduce their emissions, they cannot compensate simply by “buying” their carbon neutrality. One way we can achieve this is by demanding them to buy a classic emissions certificate that is not forest related before they engage in any tree planting activity with us, engaging them in a deeper and more meaningful climate effort. 

Planting trees sounds like a simple fix and is appealing to companies that are trying to change, however, this alone, cannot solve climate change. Although trees absorb carbon dioxide, they cannot compete with the damaging emissions of our modern lifestyle, so companies need to achieve zero emission and additionally help plant trees to make a difference. The conversation I had with Felix showed me how his organization engages in climate advocacy and action at the same time. The 1 trillion tree initiative means that once all of the trees are planted, they can absorb further 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, which can buy time for the world to become serious about climate change and lowering carbon emission. 

By Victoria Hohenlohe 

Victoria is pursuing her MA in Conflict, Security and Development and her main area of interest is climate change, in particular the role of the private sector in achieving sustainable development goals. 

The featured image (top) is by Markus Spiske on Pexels and is lisenced with a Pexels License.

Bibliography

“Fridays for Future,” February 17, 2021. https://fridaysforfuture.org/. 

Parker, Laura. “Teenager Is on Track to Plant a Trillion Trees.” Science. National Geographic, February 10, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/felix-finkbeiner-plant-for-the-planet-one-trillion-trees. 

“Plant-for-the-Planet – Trillion Trees for Climate Justice.” Plant for the Planet, February 21, 2021. https://a.plant-for-the-planet.org/. 

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