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Tree-planting campaigns get a high-tech boost

Embattled reforesting programs are trying to help with the climate crisis. They're turning to apps, data, and satellites for help.

By Glenn McDonald

It seems like a perfect solution: If global warming is caused by excess carbon dioxide in the air (and it is), then why not reduce that carbon by planting more of Mother Nature’s best air scrubbers? More trees = less CO2 = happy planet, right?

Tree-planting projects are part of a larger strategy of natural climate solutions, which aim to use land management practices — conservation, restoration, and reforestation — to mitigate climate change.

But tree-planting programs have had a rough time of it lately, as critics blast the reported or promised numbers as inflated. Last year, Ethiopia claimed to have planted four billion trees in just three months and 353 million trees in a day, numbers widely questioned by news services and other groups. Similar criticisms have plagued other restoration programs.

Part of the problem is verification. Large-scale tree-planting projects rely almost exclusively on self-reported numbers from thousands of volunteer groups. Figures tend to get inflated for all sorts of reasons, and politicians like to cite big numbers.

That’s where Felix Finkbeiner hopes to help out. In the save-the-planet business, 22-year-old Finkbeiner, a German native, is something of a rock star. He started organizing tree-planting groups when he was nine years old and went on to found Plant-for-the-Planet, one of the world’s biggest and most ambitious climate justice organizations.

Plant-for-the-Planet is the driving force behind the Trillion Tree Campaign, one of several planet-spanning initiatives citing the “trillion” number as a goal. The United States recently signed on to the mothership operation, backed by the United Nations and the World Economic Forum.

“To have an impact anywhere close to the trillion tree vision, we must build transparency and trust.”

Felix Finkbeiner, founder of Plant-for-the-Planet

Speaking from his home in Switzerland — he’s working on his Ph.D. at ETH Zurich — Finkbeiner says that verification technology is the next critical step for reforestation campaigns. He hopes his group’s technology platform, centered on a smartphone app, will be a part of the solution.

Available on Android, iOS, or via browser, the Plant-for-the-Planet app functions now as a way to get potential donors connected to legitimate tree-planting operations around the world, by arranging tax deduction certificates and absorbing the costs of currency and transaction fees. Donors can scroll through tree-planting groups in more than 20 countries — including Colombia, Canada, Russia, and Thailand — and make donations with just a few clicks. Each group is vetted by Plant-for-the-Planet, which tracks the survival rate of their trees.

But Finkbeiner hopes to make the Plant-for-the-Planet app much more than a standard online commerce tool. The organization is working with universities and technology companies — including ETH Zurich, Ulm University, and the software giant Salesforce — to develop the app into something else entirely. The plan is to make the app itself the principal tool for providing verification and tracking data.

Ultimately, they hope, tree-planting groups could use the app’s data management tools, camera options, and GPS capabilities to enter and upload specifics on what they plant each day. They could also verify who owns the land, when it was last purchased, and whether there are any indigenous land issues in play. For maturing plots, they could enter the average height and circumference of the trees, along with photos and videos.

“At the end of the day, the team leader walks around and records the corners of the [planting area],” Finkbeiner says. “He or she records the GPS location with the phone, and then we’ve got the data for each day’s work.”

The data would be uploaded to interactive GPS maps maintained by Plant-for-the-Planet. When the GPS maps are overlaid with live satellite imagery, the donors and any regulatory agencies could see what’s being planted, and where, and when.

“You can look at the newest available satellite image and then compare it with a satellite image from a year ago, five years ago, 10 years ago,” Finkbeiner says. “You can see how that area is greening.”

What’s more, all the data uploaded could be shared with other research organizations, making worldwide estimates more accurate. “Once you know how tall a tree is, the diameter and the species, you can calculate the biomass and carbon captured,” Finkbeiner says. “This is good for the global model.”

And tracking the trees would help ensure more responsible reforestation, he says. Some well-intentioned tree-planting programs from decades ago have wound up soaking up groundwater and creating prime conditions for forest fires.

It’s an ambitious plan, but because it’s still only partially implemented — Finkbeiner estimates the first iteration of the fully-functional app won’t be ready until later this year — the Trillion Tree Campaign has attracted the attention of critics.

Chris Lang, an environmental activist and founder of the REDD-Monitor blog, recently published a critique of the numbers that Plant-for-the-Planet is reporting — 13.63 billion trees, at last count. Earlier last year, the German newspaper Die Zeit took issue with the figures, as well.

There is a danger in posting inaccurate numbers, Lang says. Because many industrial operations claim to offset their carbon emissions by funding tree-planting operations, “these countries or corporations could claim to be storing carbon in trees that don’t exist.”

But even if the numbers are relatively accurate, Lang says, shiny happy tree-planting projects can still be a dangerous distraction.

“Offsetting may reduce emissions in one part of the world, but the sale of carbon offsets guarantees that emissions from burning fossil fuel take place somewhere else in the world,” Lang says. “At best the one cancels out the other. Tree planting is not an excuse for business as usual — we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

Finkbeiner acknowledges that even the most efficient tree-planting systems will only work as part of a larger planetary effort to reduce carbon emissions.

But he remains optimistic that restoration and reforestation can still play a major part in navigating the climate crisis. He credits at least part of his optimism to a renewed faith in technology that can help with funding, coordination, and verification.

“I feel like I was increasingly less hopeful until last year, when I became more hopeful again,” he says, citing recent gains by Green parties in Europe. “To have an impact anywhere close to the trillion tree vision, we must build transparency and trust in this work that is being done by many other organizations out there. We must do this with technology.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Illustration by Verónica Grech


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