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And to bring back a trillion trees, we don't actually need to plant a trillion trees.
The beauty of nature is that in many places these trees can come back by themselves if only we allow this to stop talking and start planning.
That's the motto of today's guest, Felix Finkbeiner. Felix is the founder of Plant for the Planet Initiative, a project he started when he was just nine years old. Today, 13 years later, he and his project are still dedicated to planting trees. A lot of trees. In fact, the total global count for the trees that they've planted since the foundation of the initiative is 14 billion. That's a huge amount of trees. But as a species, humanity uses around 15 billion trees each year.
So to put that in perspective, that's like cutting down the equivalent of all the forests in Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and the United Kingdom. Every year. As it stands now, we plant about five billion new trees a year. So how can we cover this 10 billion trade gap? And besides, we live in a world where we need an estimated one trillion more trees just to get a handle on the climate crisis. Felix joins us today to discuss these challenges, the effects of deforestation and examples of successes his initiative is having around the world.
Plus, he shares some stats that might surprise you. Right now, we have about three trillion total trees on Spaceship Earth. So how are we going to add the next trillion? Tune in to today's episode to find out.
This season of Hidden in Plain Sight is brought to you exclusively by our friends at Splunk. The Data to Everything platform Splunk helps organizations worldwide turn data into doing its time for data to be more than a record of what happened.
It's time to make things happen.
Learn more at Splunk dot com or by clicking the link in our show notes. Felix, welcome to the show. Thank you. So when I look out at the world today, I see trees out there and if I do some research, there are a lot of them, but they're still disappearing at a pretty alarming rate. So we are excited to have you here and kind of dig into this problem in this challenge that's facing us. So, first of all, Felix, thanks for taking the time.
Felix, how did this problem get on your radar and how did you become so passionate about the work that you're doing?
And tell us a little bit about it. I got into all of this a long time ago, 13 years ago. At the time, I was nine years old. I was in fourth grade and my teacher asked me to give a little talk in my class about the climate crisis. And when it appeared, that's what I found out about a woman who had started the movement that ended up, I think, 30 million trees across Kenya in 30 years.
What she did is she paid women to plant trees for managed to use tree planting as a tool for women's empowerment. It's an incredibly impressive story for which she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Actually, I was I was a nine year old and I didn't understand the complexity of the text of our fantastic work. All I really took away was that planting trees helps helps the climate because trees capture CO2. And because of that, I told my classmates that we should be planting one million trees in each country as well as children.
And many of my classmates liked the idea. And a couple of weeks later, we planted our first tree. And that really kicked off quite a move that I think started because two local journalists reported about how a tree that's how some other schools found out about it. And we found a slightly older student support us, who created a very simple website. And this website was actually just a ranking among local schools. And lots of schools wanted to outcompete the neighboring schools.
And that's how fast the planet spread. After one year, we planted about 50 thousand trees after three years, a million, and it spread from Felix.
I think it's so cool that you attack this problem by planting a tree, right. It's so easy these days to get lost in the planning and the preparation. And you just got started in a small way and then game of hide the problem and invited others to compete and play this game with you of fighting deforestation and helping combat climate change. So kudos to you for that. That's very, very cool. When you were really ramping up this effort and it started to formalize a bit more.
What are some of the first pieces of data or research that you stumbled on that made you take a step back and say, wow, I had no idea that this problem was so pernicious or that it was such a threat to the world?
The really interesting thing, actually, was that we had to really we still do. But back then, even worse, a very big lack of important data we have to address. That's going to be honest, though. At nine years old, I didn't care. I didn't notice. It was just many years later, once we started achieving this goal of the one million trees that we really ask ourselves, where do we go from here? What are the next steps in that process?
We had some obvious questions, like how many trees even exist in the world and how many additional trees could be flat. And we obviously thought these were very simple questions, but soon noticed that there weren't any proper answers. The best count that existed for how many trees there were globally was about four hundred billion. It came from a NASA study. But then by that time, another paper had come out that concluded that just in the Amazon there are more than four hundred billion trees.
So we knew this number was totally wrong, but no one knew what the actual cap was. But we then actually linked up. We found three awesome scientists at Yale and we managed to convince them, I believe, right? Yes. Tom Crowther, professor, I'm proud that he's now a professor here in Europe at Zoric. And he then started a three year research project. Which ended up being published in the journal Nature and concluded that there are roughly three trillion trees globally, three trillion trees, to put that in context, we used to have about six trillion trees.
That's also part of a conclusion from his research. It's about eleven thousand years ago after the last Ice Age, before humans started really cutting down forests. We used to have twice as many trees globally as we have today. And the second big question that I mentioned was how many additional trees could be flat? Because ideally, we bring back those six trillion trees, have six trillion trees again, but of course that's not possible. We need land for for agriculture, for settlements and so on.
What Professor Crowther and his team did in their in their continued research and then published a year ago in the journal Science, was where could we realistically restore forests without competing with agriculture and so on. In that process, they created a global map that concluded that we could restore about a trillion additional trees. So we can't come back from the three trillion to the six trillion, but we can get to four trillion trees. And that's our mission at plants.
The planet convinced the world to restore those trillion trees.
And I love that it's in strategic areas to where you're not trying to compete with local economies or things and systems that are already rolling and contributing to deforestation.
So if we take a step back and look at about how many trees we use collectively as a species this year, it's about 15 billion, I believe. And that number is problematic because it appears that we plant five billion new trees a year. So I would love to get your comments on this 10 billion trees gap. And are these numbers accurate? Are they what you have heard and how do we first close this gap and get to sustainability? Yeah, well, you mentioned there are the the best numbers we have available that we lose about 10 billion trees every year.
These numbers are far from perfect. It's quite hard to get these accurate counts. But this is based on a satellite analysis of tree coverage around the world to give you a sense of how much 10 billion trees are. That's a bit more than the entire tree cover in Germany. So all of Germany has about eight billion trees and we lose 10 billion trees every year. Yeah, and as you point out, this is like a dual problem. We need to stop deforestation as soon as possible and at the same time invest a lot in reforestation to combat all of that accumulated or a lot of that accumulated loss of the past past decades.
And there are a wide range of different strategies. We need to reduce deforestation. Part of it is changing our consumption habits. The biggest driver for deforestation is meat consumption because to produce one an equal amount of calories by eating meat or by consuming, we eat. We need much, much more land. And if we consume the same amount of calories in some other vegetable based, or because if you grow wheat and then feed it to a cow, then a lot of that that energy is lost in the life cycle of the cow instead of being gained by the human eating that grain, essentially.
So a big part of addressing climate change is reducing our meat consumption around the world. That is the most effective thing we can do, along with a few other products that massively contribute to deforestation, like palm oil, for instance. And another big part of it is also in increasing the efficiency of the agriculture in those sectors. So it's less land is needed for for the same amount of product. And that reduces the pressure on for new sites, for new deforestation.
Sure. And Felix, how did this study in this pursuit lead you to plant for the planet and the initiatives that you're working on now? How did those initiatives come together and how did you lead that charge?
So you kicked off with this German youth project? We started back then, many years ago, but it has, of course, evolved a lot since then. We still have children, youth all around the world, participating in plants, the planet and spreading our message. And to allow them to do so, we organize plans for the academies. These are essentially one day training sessions where we bring together children, use the local schools and teach them what the climate crisis is, what we have to what they can do to help address this crisis, like, for instance, planting trees and motivate them to go out, plant trees, give speeches, convince others much more.
So you've had a thousand children in seventy four countries participate in these training programs to spread out message. That's the one part of what we do at the planet. A second big part of it of our work is getting the message out there for the importance of reforestation. That was a big part of our work over many years. But with the publicity about reforestation around the forestation in the last few years, we believe that to a large extent we have a.
That there was just a pull out in pulling people in the US asking people what their preferred strategy of addressing the climate crisis is, and actually 90 percent of respondents answered that restoring a trillion trees is a good strategy. So clearly the importance of that message is out there. So that's less of a focus. Now, our main focus at the planet is helping with the implementation of this massive reforestation. And we have two main ways we addressing this. The first part is we're actively planting as many trees as possible.
Because of that, we've set up a reforestation project on the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico, where we have a staff of one hundred people planting on average one tree every 15 seconds. That's over two million trees a year that we're planting there to bring back a Mexican rainforest. That's an important part of what we do. And on top of that, what we're trying to do is bring transparency not only to our own project in Mexico, but to lots of other projects like that by allowing people to discover what all of these projects are doing, where exactly these projects are using satellite imagery to show people how these sites that are being planted on a changing over time that people can get to know reforestation projects around the world, select their favorite ones and then support them.
We built an app called an app that people can use, discover tree planting projects all around the world, and then donate directly to these projects so they can plant more trees. So for each project, you will see what type of species they plant, where exactly they planted them, why they selected these sites and so on. And you will see the price per tree and can donate directly to these projects. Very exciting.
And when it comes to two million trees a year that you all are planting, that is a lot. However, to get to a trillion, it's a huge next step. How are you going to get to a trillion? How many institutions, schools and individuals need to get together and start planting trees in order to get to a trillion? Help paint a picture for us of how we get there?
I think one important part of understanding this is that to bring back a trillion trees, we don't actually need to plant a trillion. Thank God it's a lot easier than that, because the beauty of nature is that in many places these trees can come back by themselves. If only we allow this to consider this. If if a bit of rain forest burns down in Brazil, but a bit around this burnt area, we still have we still have rain forest and it just burned down, which means that there's still a lot of seeds, a lot of tree seeds in the soil and there's enough nitrogen and so on still on the site.
Then there's no need for us to come in there and plant trees because all resources are available in nature can automatically restore itself. In a lot of cases around the world, the only thing we need to do is allow this nature to come back automatically. And then at the other extreme of this are sites that are so degraded they've not been forests in so long or they've been destroyed so thoroughly. And there's there are no seeds, no nearby forests from which seeds can blow in the wind dispersal or with bird dispersal or insect dispersal, that these trees, these trees cannot come back by themselves, then we need to plant trees there.
And there's also a lot of intervention types in the middle between those two extremes of the spectrum, like planting just a few individual trees that will then allow other trees to come back. So a really important part of this project is to to get a good understanding of all of these sites around the world, understand how degraded they are and what the best strategies are to bring back these forests so that we can reduce our work as much as possible and only really do tree planting where it's absolutely necessary.
And all of these other places allow for natural regeneration. Sure. Are there any estimates about natural reforestation and how quickly it can occur? Are there any case studies you like to cite when someone asks, well, how quick can nature regrow itself?
That's incredibly hard to answer. Broadly, there are some great academic studies to how quickly the biomass comes back. The problem is that it varies a huge amount with a whole range of different factors. Generally, what can be said is that in tropical conditions or grow a lot faster, which means they capture a lot more CO2 every year and they also achieve their maximum biomass per unit area much. Much faster, so I think we can generally say that a tropical condition you can achieve that, that biomass of that biomass, maybe around 80, 100 years after restoration sets in and in both areas, it can take hundreds of years longer.
Temperate areas are like the northern US.
Sure, Felix, when it comes to dark data.
So dark data is just this industry phrase for data that was being collected but not currently being used in any models or decision making. So when it comes to dark data in this industry, in academia where researchers are working on this problem, are there any examples you've heard of recently of new studies, new data sets that are becoming available or being incorporated in models? Any new dark data coming online?
I'm not not sure about that.
I think with the fantastic part of the work that Trump is spearheading over this these years is not necessarily by surfacing new data, but by bringing data from researchers all around the world together into one shared database. That means that we can, instead of analyzing regional local phenomenon, analyze phenomenon at a global scale. And of course, scientists are often quite protective of their data because they invest so much in collecting it. So I delete a lot of a lot of academics want to keep that data for themselves and I personally analyze it instead of allowing other people to analyze it.
So a lot of effort often goes into encouraging scientists to work together in that way, share the data and collaborate globally. And I think that is part of the great work that that Tom Crowley was able to do there. And we are trying to do with this this transparency platform. The plants that I mentioned is encourage tree planting organizations and restoration organizations around the world to start collecting standardised data all around the world. Right. Every reforestation organization has some sort of method to quantify to what they do, but it is really hard to compare their quality and to do research globally based on this data, because they all track different metrics and many of them actually track far too little.
So we are building at plants. The planet is on top of this this end user focused app where people can and donate to the project is another app called the Tree Mapper app that allows projects to very easily collect data about their impact, about their work in a standardised way so that we can start to compare reforestation projects all around the world and and measure the impact globally. This is really exciting. So the standardized model that you and your teams have created for this data tracking and recording, how did that come about?
And have you seen any cases where early adoption is especially promising?
So what's really important is that we haven't launched this yet. We're in the final stages of developing this, this and we're going to start this and in a few months. Absolutely, the important point here is that it's not revolutionary. We didn't develop the new standards, we're just building on the know how in our in the restoration community in general. And I think what sets us apart from other efforts is that we're combining these two things. We've developed this app that allows people to donate to donate trees at the same time we've developed this data collection.
And what's important is that these projects will only be able to keep receiving donations through our app from our community if they make the effort of collecting that data and making it publicly available. So we've we're not just providing a tool that allows them to easily collect the data about that project, but also creating that extra incentive to to do that extra bit of work and to not just keep that data for yourself, but also make it publicly available to anyone, all the searchers and all donors.
And that will hopefully contribute to a much better understanding.
Sure. And Felix, when it comes to the nitty gritty of planting trees and getting different species and rolling up your sleeves and doing the work yourself, are you still actively planting trees? And if so, you share some stories about how people can get to the field and start planting trees quickly, like is there can they download the app and find some actual physical locations that are recommended and begin planting? What's that process like?
So of course, I still get to plant a lot of trees myself, especially when I visit our website in Mexico and on the ground there. I'm working on my PhD right now as part of my research. A lot of I get a lot of trees and I often plant together with school groups around the world as well. And it's always fantastic to plant trees itself to get a sense of what that's like. But in general, the vast majority of people live in areas that are not super suitable for large scale reforestation.
So there is no big need for a forestation just outside of New York City or just outside of L.A. or just outside of most urban centers. And in Europe, more broadly difficult to get going. Yeah, and in the US, the US, a slightly different story, because that is actually a bit of a need for forestation in the US itself. But in a lot of countries around the world, especially in countries of the global north, we've got quite good forestry systems that are taking quite good care of our forests.
Much bigger needs are generally in countries of the globe. So if you want to contribute, absolutely. If you treat yourself. But I think your focus should be on on supporting the reforestation efforts in the global south, if that's probably most effectively by fundraising and donating to them. But I'm sure a lot of them would also be excited about getting volunteers. Sure.
Felix, when it comes to deforestation, many people think of the rainforest first and foremost. How are we doing in the battle against deforestation in the rainforest? Are local governments and groups starting to be a little bit more cautious and careful with this? Are they replanting trees more? Where are we in the fight to save the rainforest?
That's a complex story. And I think Brazil, maybe the most important country in this context, is a great example for this. Between the years 2004 and 2014, the Brazilian government, together with fantastic local NGOs, made massive gains in reducing deforestation. In that decade, deforestation actually dropped by 70 percent. In Brazil, 70 percent. That's as insane, wonderful success and really proves that it's possible for us to tackle this challenge. But then in two thousand, shortly after this, the new Tamiya government came in and.
The TEMEL government already massively reduced these efforts and then the national government, even worse, followed after that. And since then, deforestation has picked up quite substantially again in Brazil. So this kind of shows that if local governments are willing or if national governments are willing in some of these most important countries, we can make quite an important point there. Another rather interesting program is the efforts of the Norwegian government in that regard. The Norwegian government for the past couple of years has been working on our program.
Well, it provides billions of dollars worth of funding and to governments around the world with a lot of rain forests tied to goals in regards to protecting the rainforest. So this is the start a couple of years ago, initially wasn't quite as successful as a lot of observers would have hoped, but they are still tweaking their process. And I think that's generally a great role model for what Western governments can contribute more broadly, even though we don't have often don't have a lot of rain forests in our own country, we all collectively, globally profit from these rainforests remaining in place.
So what we can do is provide these governments with a lot of rainforest, with the funding they need to protect these rainforests and pay them to make those efforts. So I think that's a really interesting approach. And I'm very curious to see how that effort develops. And I think governments like the American government and other European governments could provide a lot more funding of that type.
Completely agree and feel like your slogan. I assume you have many of them. But one of them that I like that you use is stop talking and start planting. So tell us a bit about that. And when it gets to the end of the day, in this massive problem that you're fighting, how do you kind of keep your perspective and remain patient while you're in the trenches doing this work?
Yes, the slogan is actually part of a campaign we started many years ago, and the idea was we were super young organization. How do we spread our message about who we are? And what we did is whenever we met any sort of celebrity, we took photos where a young planet member, I did it quite a lot myself covered the mouth of a prominent person and then just said, stop talking, start fighting. And these photos traveled quite far.
I took one such photo, for instance, that the king of Spain and a lot of journalists were present the day after it was on the front pages of many of the biggest newspapers in Spain and made us instantly famous in that country. And it's a lot of support there. So that's really how we've been using that slogan. But if we go to the second half of your question, it's often quite hard to remain positive about this because we still losing so many more trees than we're bringing back every year.
And in climate politics more generally, we've been making so little progress in the last few years. The governments of the world agreed on the incredibly important Paris Accords in 2015. But now, five years later, we made embarrassing little progress and actually achieving those goals there. So it's quite shameful. We have achieved in the three space is that a lot of people are now finally understanding the importance of preserving forests and restoring forests around the world. But of course, that is the first and least important step.
The much bigger work remains ahead in actually implementing this and bringing back these points when it comes to the specifics of planting a tree or planting many trees. Is there a rough unit, cost of labor, planting logistics? Are there any estimates that you have about how much it costs to plant one tree versus a million trees? How does this problem scale and what are the costs associated with it?
So obviously the main factor in this are local labor costs and also site conditions. Depending on how degraded the site is, the more degraded the site is, the more expensive it's going to be to bring back forests on that site. You work in Yucatán. We've now really achieved economies of scale and we were able to reduce the price to one euro per plant, the tree. And I don't think we're going to be able to reduce. It's much more than that.
So it's just over a dollar per plant, a tree in Mexico. And some African countries can be a bit lower than that. But that's a rough ballpark to help you restoring in the US. Of course, it's going to be a lot more expensive. Sure.
Felix, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with us today. If there is any final thought or call to action you would have for our listeners, feel free to take the stage and we'd love to hear it.
Yeah, I'm just waiting for anyone to help us bring back these for us, find your favorite restoration organization around the world and donate to them. Allow them to plant more trees, bring back forests. And yeah, we built the plants. The an app would just start to show you great organizations and support them or.
Now, what an awesome work. Felix, thank you so much for joining us and everyone listening. We'll see you next time. Thank you. I'm Sophia Bush, and you've been listening to Hidden in Plain Sight from Mission Egg. This podcast is sponsored by our friends at Splunk, the Data to Everything platform. In today's data driven world, every company, big or small newworld, is sitting on terabytes of unused, untapped and unknown data. Splunk helps turn all that data into action.
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