Plant for the Planet

Greater Pacific Capital talks to 15 year old Felix Finkbeiner who at the age of nine developed the idea of Plant-for-the-Planet. The school assignment to prepare a report about the issue of climate change proved to be an inspiration. While conducting his research he came across the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who had worked to plant over 30 million trees across Africa as part of her ‘Green Belt Movement’. At the end of Felix’s presentation he shared the idea that the children of the world could plant 1 million trees in every country on Earth. On 28th March 2007 the first tree was planted in Felix’s school, thus marking the official launch of Plant-for-the-Planet. After one year 150,000 trees had already been planted and in 2008 Felix was able to reach a larger audience after he was elected to the UNEP children’s board during the International UNEP Children’s Conference in Norway. Since then he has travelled the world with his message and is difficult as any executive to book time with. We have loved meeting withi him two years ago and hearing his ideas and thoughts.

The Interview

Before you came up with the vision and initiative behind Plant for the Planet was climate change an issue that you had already thought about previously and was it a concern that you had been exposed to whilst you were growing up?

My birthday gift for my 5th birthday from my aunt was a huge polar bear, taller than me. In the following years t-shirts, pyjama, blanket, calendar, posters, … everything had a polar bear picture. To save the polar bear was my intention when I shared my ideas with my classmates 9 years old in grade 4. Later I learned that it is not about the polar bear, but it is about us humans. We have to save our own lives. With 10 I was joining a UNEP-Children conference and I met 700 other children in my age coming from 100 countries. I shared my vision with them and as I was joining my first democratic election that day, I was elected as a member in the seven headed children board of the UNEP. For two years I was responsible for Europe.

I understand that you have a goal of planting 1000 billion trees by 2020. What would help you in achieving this goal and how big an impact would it have on climate/poverty crisis?

Half of all photosynthetic activity on this planet is by phytoplankton in the ocean the other half by trees and other plants on land.

Each tree can bind 10 kg of CO2 per year in average. These 12.6 billion new trees planted during the last six years of the Plant-for-the-Planet Campaign are binding 126 million tons of CO2 every year. Reaching our goal of 1.000 billion trees these trees will bind 10 billion tons of CO2. Today we humans produce and exhaust by our fossil living standard 33 billion tons of CO2 a year. As the CO2 emissions are unfortunately increasing these additional trees will absorb a quarter of the human made CO2 emission. Tree planting is not enough, but it is easy and it is an important first step. In addition we have to reduce our CO2 emissions and have to share the remaining budget fair among the world citizens.

If every person is planting 150 trees we can easily reach the 1.000 Billion Tree goal. The rich part of the world could plant 5 times the amount about 1.000 trees and for the poor part tree planting could become an income possibility. In 2009 and 2012 I met with Prof. Muhammad Yunus to develop Tree Planting Grameen Concept. As trees planted in poor tropical regions absorb double the amount of CO2 compared to a tree in rich Europe or North America such a global dimension adds up for several reasons.

You see yourself as a global citizen with your focus being on overcoming global challenges. Do you find it frustrating that most people see themselves as national citizens and have not looked at the bigger picture up until recently?

150 species get extinct every single day and extinction is forever. If we continue like that we, the human species is on the way to destroy its own livelihood. This is a minor problem for the planet, but a major problem for us humans. I am personally convinced that we can still leave that path of extinction if we change our behavior: Leave the fossil fuels in the ground, the sun is sending 5.000 times more energy to our planet than we need. The fossil fuels are much too valuable to be burned and the future generation will need it for more intelligent actions then to moving a car or heating a house.

For short-term economic competition burning fossil fuels is the better concept. But to reach such a U-turn we have to think and act globally.

The European Union got the Peace Nobel Price 2012 and this was a very wise decision from Oslo and it is a sign for the world. It is the task of our generation to start a Global Union. We have to learn that we are global citizens. If an African is starving it is a problem of “inner” politics and not of “foreign” affairs.

Who would you say inspires you to push forward with your initiative in the face of negativity and what motivates you to spread your message worldwide?

What motivates me most is the fact, that I am convinced that it is very easy to make the world a better place and it is possible to change the today’s world into a sustainable order. The main global challenges we are facing as humankind are the climate crisis and poverty-crisis: 30.000 humans, mainly children are dying of starvation every single day. In an incredible rich world where there is enough food and resources to feed everybody. Nobody has to starve. Every day we dig out as much carbon out of the ground as it took the sun one million days to store it there. We can live without fossil energy on a good living standard for all 7 and soon 9.5 billion citizens.

Our biggest obstacles are ignorance and convenience of some adults. One friend explained me the thinking of some adults by the example of the monkeys: If you let a monkey choose whether it wants one banana now or six bananas later the monkey would always choose the one banana now. And as some adults seem to act like theses monkeys we are facing huge problems.

Therefore we need global binding rules: Global rules how to deal with the environment and global rules for social justice. We have already global binding rules for the economy by the World Trade Organization (WTO). And we have environmental ideas by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and social suggestions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). We just have to make the UNEP and the ILO as strong as the WTO, or we have to combine these three law sets into one to let the world look very differently: economically, socially and environmentally in balance, in short: sustainable.

But to do so we have to understand ourselves as global citizens and not as national citizens. By tree planting we act already as a global family. We are planting trees all over the world, in the meantime in 193 countries. Wangari Maathai started that movement in Kenya and we children we are just continuing her work worldwide: 12.6 billion trees planted in six years are a first step; 1,000 billion trees are our goal. Imagine if we will have reached that goal by 2020 we will have proved to everybody that it is possible to change the world if we all work together as global citizens. Young and old, rich and poor, black, colorful and white, healthy and sick, we can all plant together.

It is clear to see that your presentations and speeches have gone viral in a relatively short space of time, how does it feel to be responsible for generating so much interest on a topic which is so important and often difficult to approach?

There are many, many more and many much younger than me. Already 20 years ago in 1992 Severn Suzuki a 14-year old girl from Canada spoke at the plenary of the UN-Summit of Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro. Her video on YouTube got 20 million clicks in 20 years. Today and that is our hope, we can reach 20 million people in two days by social media. So it is much easier to spread the word in our days. In 2009 Yugratna Srivastava from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York. She is my age, Vice President of the Youth Board Plant-for-the-Planet and I work close together with Yugrantna since 2008.

Many of us do not only grow up as digital natives, but we also grow up as global citizens and we learn that we only have a chance when we combine our forces. I met so many children and youth all around the world that I know that I do not do anything special. There is a generation if youth growing up in all countries of the world. The social media are our benefit.

I join school every day and I am just missing 20 school days a year. Every second week-end I give a presentation, the other weekend is for friends. So I think I live a normal life of a political active child, as there are many others in the world. We know that the future is too important to let only the adults be responsible for it. I know exactly, if I would stop being active for any reasons, many others of my friends would take over. We, the young generation know that we have to shape our future by ourselves.

I understand that you run academies (one day workshops) to educate children so that they have a better understanding on how they can help with climate change. How have you found that they respond to the academies?

It all started in my school and my parents just learned from time to time during the first year how thinks developed out of my classroom into other classes, into other grades and into other schools. I think they were proud.

One year after I started there were 500 media reports on a single day. And my parents were no longer proud, but shocked. Since that day my dad was involving and was starting the idea of academies. His intention was that I could one day step back behind many other children. Originally he wanted to protect me, by involving other children that could also give presentations. Academies are one-day workshops where a child is empowering other about 80 children to also become active. In the meantime we have had 256 academies in 29 countries with 17.000 participants in the last four years. We just did it and learned that it worked. Our goal is to reach one million children and youth until 2020.

My family and me we are all working as volunteers and my father was helping me to build up an office with 17 employees coordinating all the global activities. After school I always come in the office for one hour and my father and others inform me about all what happened during the day. My mother is taking care that I do not exaggerate.

It is clear to see that your vision and focus is that of a determined young man. Where do you see yourself and the initiative 20 years from now?

My dream is that our generation will learn to act as global citizens. We have to overcome our national interests. We have to agree on global contracts to reduce our consumption of resources and to share our resources. We have to learn that the future is no longer divisible. Either we all live in peace or nobody. I started with 9 and I am 15 years old now. By my short experience of six years I learned that it probably will be a lifelong task.

I strongly believe in the collective intelligence and not in the great man theory: Not a single person will change the world, but only a global movement. We were organizing together with the UNEP global consultations during children and youth conferences in Norway in 2008, South Korea in 2009 and Japan in 2010 with several thousand participants. We were connected with laptops and if one were inserting an idea, all the other saw it and could react and insert their own ideas and vote for others. Out of these consultation- processes we developed our 3-Point-Plan.

  1. Plant a trillion trees until 2020
  2. Leave the fossil fuels in the ground
  3. Fight poverty by climate justice

These consultations give us a certain authorization. In Germany several opinion research institute ordered by Shell 2010 and Bertelsmann 2009 found out that 75% of the youth think that both the climate crisis and the poverty crisis are the two main challenges of our generation.

As the climate crisis is developing exponentially I am afraid that we do not have another 20 years of time. Either the adults, the today powerful, will support us in our effort for a global sustainable lifestyle and we can change the system in an evolutionary process or there will be young people to start a global revolution. It will not last long time to reach the tipping point and then could be any event to start a global revolution. Remember it was a greengrocer committing suicide in Tunisia in December 2008 that started the Arabic revolution. 20 years in East-Germany the people were singing in churches “We are the people” and during a press conference in Berlin one politician answered the question of a journalist with the words: “These new regulations are valid immediately”. So the Berlin Wall, the iron carpet and the communism disappeared.