Earthshot: what you need to know about the 'most prestigious environment prize in history.'

£50 million set to be awarded in a global race for 'inspiring solutions' to help repair the world.

By Simon Ingram
Published 8 Oct 2020, 12:26 BST
Observers regard melting ice in Jokulsarlon, Iceland. Climate change is one of five goals, or 'Earthshots', entrants are challenged ...

Observers regard melting ice in Jokulsarlon, Iceland. Climate change is one of five goals, or 'Earthshots', entrants are challenged to address in a ten-year, globally-awarded prize. 

Photograph by Ashley Cooper, Alamy

"We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet." It's the next sentence of this promotional film, unmistakably intoned by David Attenborough, that encapsulates the Earthshot Prize: "And never before have we had the power to do something about that."

Announced in 2019 and launched today by Prince William and the Royal Foundation, this global award will deliver five prizes of £1 million every year between 2021 and 2030. The recipients: anyone deemed to have the results proving they can make a dent in some of the world's most pressing environmental problems.

Each winner - anything from an individual, to a business, to a country – is tasked to show they have made 'substantial development or outstanding contributions to solving' one of five goals, or 'Earthshots:' protect and restore nature, clean our air, revive our oceans, build a waste free world and fix our climate. 

The £50 million total fund - and its global backing of environmentalists, royalty, philanthropic celebrities and an alliance of corporate and scientific partners - make Earthshot, according to its creators, 'the most prestigious environmental prize in history.'   

Why 'Earthshot?'

Recuperative inferral aside, there's perhaps irony in naming an award encouraging ideas for protecting our planet after the era when we were grasping for another. Yet Kennedy's so-called 'moonshot' drive of the 1960s was more than just a snappily-named ambition: it was an upswell of public support to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenge that grew ever more positive as results were gained.

David Attenborough and Prince William launching the Earthshot Prize at Kensington Palace, London. The prize is spearheaded by The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and unites a global backing of companies, philanthropists, celebrities and scientific and conservation bodies.

Photograph by The Royal Foundation, Earthshot

Thanks to this, and the rapid and focussed technological development that ensued, humans proved the capability was there; The moonshot worked. And it's this mentality the award's creators hope to harness.

"I really do think things are about to start to move, and this sort of idea could be the spark that is really going to give it the lift and the impetus to develop into something huge." said David Attenborough, whilst in conversation with Prince William in a film to launch the prize. "It’s a great source of hope, and I hope it spreads around the world.”

Attenborough is a member of the Earthshot Prize Council, a 12-strong panel of individuals to support the award's judging process. The council members occupy unique roles of influence and experience - from actors and footballers to athletes and astronauts, and members of royal families to economists, scientists and executives.

Hazardous levels of pollution in Amritsar, India. One of the five 'Earthshots' in the prize is 'clean our air' - with the others 'revive our oceans,' 'build a waste-free world', 'protect and restore nature' and 'fix our climate'.


Photograph by Paul Kennedy, Alamy

If this group is designed to reflect the prize's diverse breadth and scale, and its mission's implicit relevance to everyone, it succeeds: as well as Attenborough and Prince William, notable members include former UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, activist and National Geographic emerging explorer Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, philanthropist Jack Ma, actress Cate Blanchett, and singer Shakira.     

In addition to the council are a growing number of global alliance members and partners, including The National Geographic Society. "It's been such an honour for us to support the work of the Royal Foundation," says Enric Sala, marine ecologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. "These prizes are designed to achieve big goals, to help solve some of the world's greatest environmental problems. The entire effort is infused with such optimism and innovation."  

The power of optimism

The prize comes towards the close of a year that has seen unprecedented events outside of climate concerns, but one that has continued an already alarming trajectory nonetheless. A series of recent reports made for uncomfortable headlines: populations of nearly 21,000 animal species plummeting by an average of 68 percent between 1970 and 2016. Every target missed in a global attempt to safeguard biodiversity. Greenland on track to lose more ice this century than in the last 12,000 years. 

“It’s entirely possible right now – we have the tools, technologies and resources to achieve a stable climate on a regenerated planet.”

Christiana Figueres

The impetus for change – as demonstrated by the global climate protests of 2019, such as this one in Edinburgh – is a powerful tool for positive action. But what of the ideas that will drive the results? Organisers say this is the aim of the the Earthshot Prize: to 'find and highlight the most inspiring solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.'

Photograph by Steven Scott Taylor, Alamy

But despite this seemingly relentless pessimism, there has also been encouraging and abundant evidence that when humans do get behind a problem, real results are possible. Fish populations rebuilding in areas with more sustainable fishing practises; protection extended to 7.5 percent of the oceans and 15 percent of the land so far in a drive to protect 30% of the land and sea by 2030; and the consensus amongst key players that, if these efforts hadn't been made, things would be a lot worse.    

"Tackling climate change is not some far off challenge," says Earthshot Prize Council member Christiana Figueres, whose work at the UN culminated in the landmark Paris Agreement. "It’s entirely possible right now – we have the tools, technologies and resources to achieve a stable climate on a regenerated planet." 

"We have to have the confidence to make this change," says Yao Ming, another council member and former basketball player - whose philanthropy led to a foundation in his name.  "Regardless of the impact our actions have had upon the natural world, I believe that with enough desire and optimism, we can reverse this and repair our planet.”

Video: Introducing the Earthshot Prize

Where the money will go

Nominations open on November 1st, and the winners will awarded after a 5-stage assessment process. Chosen on the basis of their evidence-based solutions to one of the five goals, the winners will receive, according to Earthshot, 'a global platform and prestigious profile,' with the 'ambition that their solutions lead to mass adoption, replication and scaling.' The cash will support environmental and conservation projects in consultation with the winners.

With such a backing for any potential innovation, the initiative is sure to attract attention. According to Prince William, who launched the prize with the film below, "The next ten years are a critical decade for change. Time is of the essence, which is why we believe that this very ambitious global prize is the only way forward.”

Video: Watch Prince William in conversation with David Attenborough and the Earthshot Prize Council.

The Earthshot Prize: David Attenborough and Prince William in conversation

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