Felix Finkbeiner Plant-for-the-Planet
For Felix Finkbeiner, the mission to plant trees must go hand-in-hand with an 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 other planting strategies in between. «If you intervene, then the 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 ecological guidance is important». Felix Finkbeiner is the founder of Germany-based tree-planting organization, Plantfor-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 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 percent 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 is most effective. «There are restoration strategies that we have tested in our project in Yucatan to try to figure out how we can increase our survival rate and growth rates with what we have 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 the team is tracking data to get the number of nitrogen fixers just right.
«What we are testing in our current experiment 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 plant 10, 30, or 60 percent nitrogen fixers to optimize the growth? It is not just the nitrogen fixers but of all the trees planted there. There are lots of these ecological questions we are 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 by saying «Let us plant in each country of Earth a million trees!». He shared this presentation in other classes, then 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 this task on at a point where it was succeeding. There was room for 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 thirteen years-old at the time. The Plant-for-thePlanet 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 to understand how many trees could be planted, they would need to figure out how many trees we have on the planet. The results showed that there are approximately three trillion trees on the planet, with 50 percent 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 the 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 way of solving climate change. The research and resulting awareness produced some high-profile support – including United States President Donald Trump committing to planting trees in the US towards this goal. Coupled with the momentum of the Fridays For Future youth movement, 2019 was a progressive year for worldwide consciousness of the climate crisis.
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 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.