By Chris Lang
The NGO Plant for the Planet aims to “fight the climate crisis by planting trees around the world”. In March 2018, Plant for the Planet launched a Trillion Tree Campaign, together with Prince Albert II of Monaco, WWF, WCS, and Birdlife International, among others.
The Trillion Tree Declaration announces that, “So far, 15 billion trees have been planted in 193 countries under the guidance of the UNEP and Plant-for-the-Planet.”
Recently, Felix Finkbeiner, who set up Plant for the Planet at the age of nine, was in New York for the Global Landscapes Forum. In his presentation, he announced the launch of a new Plant for the Planet app:
“We are officially launching it today. But we did see that in the Beta phase the last few months, even though we haven’t really published it yet, we’ve got 5,000 people that have already donated through the app. They’ve donated an average of over US$40, and donated a total of 500,000 trees already. So this is at the very beginning but we are seeing that it’s working.
“So what are the next steps? The first thing that we’re working on is we’re building a tool that relies on remote sensing to estimate the amount of carbon these projects are capturing. This is not going to be a perfect system, but the idea is that we build trust. That the user, the donor, can see that their money doesn’t get lost somewhere in the process but something is actually happening on the ground.
“This is all about building trust. It’s really more difficult than we expected when we started this, but if things go well this is going to be ready in the next 12 months.”
Building trust? Really?
In March 2019, journalist Tin Fischer wrote about Plant for the Planet in the German newspaper, Die Zeit. Fischer is interested in the numbers that Finkbeiner’s organisation puts forward to demonstrate its success.
At the time Plant for the Planet’s website claimed that 15 billion trees had been planted. Fischer notes that practically all the large-scale planting was carried out by states such as China, India, or Ethiopia. These tree planting operations were carried out under the UN Environment Programme’s “Billion Tree Campaign”, and have nothing to do with Plant for the Planet.
In December 2011, UNEP handed over the Billion Tree Campaign to Plant for the Planet. At that stage, 12 billion trees had been planted.
Fischer points out that a few individuals listed on Plant for the Planet’s website claimed to have planted very large numbers of trees. For example, “Valf F.” from France is listed as having planted 682 million trees, and “Deekay” from Egypt as having planted 500 million.
These characters have now disappeared from Plant for the Planet’s website. Someone called “Marc Legris” is the current tree planting leader, with slightly more than 7.5 million trees. “Vivekanandan aka vivekh” is in second place with 2.4 million trees.
In the 1990s, I worked for several months in a tree nursery in Vietnam. I spent day after day putting seedlings in small plastic bags to be grown in the nursery, before being planted out. Most of the seedlings didn’t survive. In that time I reckon I must have planted at most a few thousand trees.
For an individual to plant millions of trees would take years – and would require large areas of land. Plant for the Planet claims to ask people who have planted a lot of trees to provide more information, such as photographs or videos of the trees.
But the organisation’s website also states that,
Trillion Tree Campaign is based on user trust and we believe it is user’s responsibility to only register trees that have been planted by them.
RWE and tree planting?
In March 2019, when Fischer wrote about Plant for the Planet, RWE was one of the companies listed on the organisation’s website. Fischer asked whether this was perhaps “atonement for the Hambach Forest?” (The Hambach Forest was the scene of violent clashes between the police and environmental activists. RWE wanted to clearcut the forest in order to expand its open-cast lignite mine. In February 2019, RWE agreed to halt logging in Hambach Forest.)
Fischer asked Plant for the Planet about RWE. It was a “fake message”, that was “inadvertently released”, Plant for the Planet told him. The organisation promised to check its database and to check the individuals from France and Egypt that claimed to have planted huge number of trees.
A week later, Plant for the Planet told Fischer that it had written to the email addresses given by “Valf F.” and “Deekay”, but had not yet received any replies. It had therefore, “as a precaution deleted the dubious numbers”.
In March 2019, Fischer reported that the the number of trees planted stood at 13.62 billion (after the two dubious entries were deleted). Since then, another 20 million trees have gone. It currently stands at 13.60 billion:
The fake entries, Plant for the Planet told Fischer, were “very, very annoying”. But the NGO argued that no one was harmed because no money was involved. Despite that, Fischer wrote, Plant for the Planet’s credibility had certainly been damaged.
Advance Global Iniatives, Nigeria
According to Plant for the Planet’s website, a company called Advance Global Initiative Ltd is currently the leading tree planting company, having planted 500 million trees in 11 states in Nigeria.
A Google search for Advance Global Initiative Ltd reveals nothing. A search for “tree planting in Nigeria” revealed no information about Advance Global Initiative’s operations in the country. Just maybe, that’s another 500 million trees that Plant for the Planet should take a closer look at.
I couldn’t find any sign of Advance Global Initiative’s tree planting operations on the map of Nigeria on Plant for the Planet’s website.
But I did notice a strange thing about Plant for the Planet’s map of Nigeria. Many of the tree plantings are on a straight line. Stranger still is that the line continues into the Atlantic Ocean:
Finkbeiner’s fairy tales
In a July 2019 article about Finkbeiner, Fischer writes that “Felix was Greta before Greta existed, the Thursday before ‘Fridays for the Future’”. He planted his first tree at the age of nine. When he was 11, he was awarded the Bavarian State Medal for Special Services to the Environment. At 13, he gave a speech to the United Nations. In 2018, Finkbeiner was awarded the Federal Order of Merit.
But Fischer’s March 2019 article about Plant for the Planet revealed that many of the tree planting entries in the NGO’s database were fake. The Plant for the Planet IT Department made a test entry of 430,000,001 trees planted under the name “Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory”.[*] It stayed on the Plant for the Planet website for two months.
Finkbeiner told Fischer he was very embarrassed about the fake trees. But he explained that “My job is to make people enthusiastic.”
“An enthusiasm based on dubious numbers,” Fischer notes. Occasionally, Fischer writes, Finkbeiner tells fairy tales.
For example, in a 2018 interview with bento (the Spiegel‘s magazine for young people) Finkbeiner said that his biggest success of the year was that a billion trees had been planted. Fischer points out that the trees were planted as a reforestation project in Pakistan, and had nothing to do with Plant for the Planet.
Finkbeiner told Fischer he was ashamed about his claim in the bento interview. “I can only apologise,” he said. A correction has been posted on the bento website.
Crowther’s climb down
Plant for the Planet was one of the organisations that funded ETH-Zürich’s recent study on the potential of tree planting to address the climate crisis. Finkbeiner is studying for his PhD at ETH-Zürich, under Professor Tom Crowther, one of the authors of the study.
Earlier this month, Finkbeiner started his presentation at the Global Landscapes Forum in New York with a reference to this study.
Thanks to some really excellent work in the last few months, with the decade on global landscape restoration, lots of your work and also some high impact research, the world is slowly waking up to the fact that tree planting is a crucial part of the solution to the climate crisis.
He showed slides of some of the media coverage:
“The Guardian probably went a little too far,” Finkbeiner commented. “But the message is getting out there.”
Actually, practically all of the media coverage (more than 700 pieces were published) went too far. But that’s because the paper itself went too far.
The abstract of the study states that,
Excluding existing trees and agricultural and urban areas, we found that there is room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of canopy cover, which could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon in areas that would naturally support woodlands and forests. This highlights global tree restoration as our most effective climate change solution to date.
In a September 2019 interview with The Economist, ETH-Zürich’s Tom Crowther was keen to play down the study’s claims for the climate benefits of very large scale tree planting. “It would be very slow,” he told The Economist, “it would be over 200 years.”
Crowther is still pushing tree planting though. “We’re talking about a really, really powerful carbon drawdown solution,” he said. But when he was asked about how the numbers in the study translate to the real world, Crowther admitted that,
We would never, ever propose that tree planting works everywhere.
We’re just showing the full potential. It’s not like 200 gigatons are really going to come out of the atmosphere immediately, it would be amazing if we even reached 10% of that full potential.
PHOTO Credit: Felix Finkbeiner speaking at the Global Landscapes Forum in New York.