Felix Finkbeiner is trying for the trillion

Felix Finkbeiner may seem rather young, at age 21, to have won the prestigious Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany – its youngest ever recipient.

But he was just a fourth grader when he began Plant-for-the-Planet, the project that earned him that award.

Finkbeiner had been tasked by his teacher to give a classroom presentation on climate change. His research introduced him to the work of Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Inspired by Maathai’s legacy of mobilizing women to plant 30 million trees, he challenged his fellow students to try and do something similar, by planting one million trees in every country in the world.

He and his peers began two weeks later, attracting local media attention as they planted a crab apple tree on the school grounds.

Soon schoolchildren throughout Germany were planting trees, with different schools vying with each other to increase their numbers as a website, set up by a friend’s older brother, tracked their results. After a year, they had planted 50,000 trees and, after three years, 1 million.

A year later, at the age of 10, Finkbeiner spoke about his Plant-for-the-Planet initiative at the European Parliament. And in 2011, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly, where he said, “We children know adults know the challenges and they know the solutions. We don’t know why there is so little action.”

Tree-planting schoolchildren in Ghana. Plant-for-the-Planet

Plant-for-the-Planet has charged forward in creating that action, through an army of schoolchildren. At free one-day workshops called Plant-for-the-Planet Academies, kids become Climate Justice Ambassadors, learning how to give presentations and organize tree-planting events in their own communities, guided by advice from NGOs recommending which species to plant where.

Now, Plant-for-the-Planet has branches in 67 countries. Together with many adults, organizations and governments, its participants have planted more than 15.2 billion trees in 190 countries. Its success was so noteworthy that UN Environment put Plant for the Planet in charge of its Billion Tree Campaign in 2011, an initiative that has now become the Trillion Trees Campaign.

That change is the result of a gigantic tree census carried out by Thomas Crowther, now assistant professor of Global Ecosystem Ecology at ETH Zurich. Through a mutual friend, Finkbeiner approached Crowther, then at Yale, and asked him if it was possible to count just how many trees there were on the planet.

Finkbeiner, in 2011, speaks at German Sustainability Day. ChristianLietzmann, CHLDeutscher Nachhaltigkeitstag 2011

By 2015, Crowther and his team at Yale had an answer. Combining ground-based surveys with satellite imagery, they were able to put the number at 3 trillion, and calculated annual loss at 15 million – pretty much the same number Plant-for-the-Planet had reforested. If Crowther thought the data would be discouraging, he was wrong. Finkbeiner decided to scale up.

He has done that by finding ways to improve tree survival. At a 23,000-hectare site in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, for example, his organization is attaining a 94 percent tree-seedling survival rate by persuading corporations looking for carbon offsets, NGOs, governments, and individuals to adopt trees.

Just this year, Plant-for-the-Planet devised a compelling new app that allows anyone to set up a page, set a tree-planting goal and post the numbers. For those that wish to plant trees but can’t, donations can be linked to people and organizations that do, and progress can then be tracked of resulting trees planted, their location and their size. The idea, Finkbeiner said, is to make tree planting “easy and fun.”

However, Finkbeiner and his legions of youthful collaborators have done more than plant a massive number of trees. By speaking up, they have sent a clear message to global decision-makers that, as young people, it is their future that is at stake. As their logo and promotional material states all too clearly, it’s time to ‘Stop Talking. Start Planting.’

Felix Finkbeiner will speak at GLF Bonn 2018, 1–2 December. Registration is available here.