A vision for the planet: 15 ideas vying for the most prestigious environment prize in history

The Earthshot Prize today announced the innovations it believes could make a difference to our world's biggest environmental challenges. They range from the engagingly simple, to the ingenious.

A smoggy view of Shanghai, China – third most populous city in the world and one of its fastest growing. With increased urban expansion, population growth and technological growth in developing countries, the time is critical to combat the effects of all on the world. The Earthshot Prize was born to tackle the most pressing – by rewarding ingenuity.  

Photograph by Photoholgic, Unsplash
By Simon Ingram
Published 17 Sept 2021, 12:30 BST

LAST OCTOBER, UK charity The Royal Foundation launched what its steward Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, described as the ‘most prestigious environmental prize there has ever been.’

Interviewed by David Attenborough in a video to kick start the multi-year initiative, its name, the Prince explained, was a nod to John F. Kennedy’s 1960s moon-mission rallying cry, and identified five ‘Earthshots:’ a group of mortal challenges faced by our world. 

The challenges were, like Kennedy’s ‘moonshot’, of the loftiest kind: Protect and restore nature, clean our air, build a waste-free world, revive our oceans, and fix our climate. Five complex emergencies that collectively presented a simple call to action, answerable by anyone from think tanks and governments, to activists, to spare-room inventors. Human ambitions created these problems. Could human ingenuity solve them?

The stakes: £50 million in investment over the next ten years to scale up the viable ideas, and the small matter of securing a brighter legacy for the future inhabitants of our world. Plus, the potential for what some will see as the most persuasive driver of all: profit.

“Five complex emergencies collectively presenting a simple call to action: Human ambitions created these problems. Could human ingenuity solve them?”

Because with the right ideas, making money and improving the planet needn't be mutually exclusive – and indeed, probably shouldn't. As Prize Council member and former Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi said of the award: "How do we align our incentives for growth with the incentives for the planet?” 

After an initial selection process, 750 nominations were presented to a scientific advisory panel consisting of experts in the field of each 'Earthshot' – with the aim of selecting 15 finalists to be presented to a the award's Prize Council for final judging. This morning, those finalists – three for each Earthshot, and spanning 14 countries – have been announced.

Challenge: Clean our Air

Finalist The Blue Map App
Idea China’s first public environmental database, this app – developed by environmentalist and award-winning National Geographic Explorer Ma Jun – aims to provide detailed visibility and calling-to-account of China’s industrial emissions. The towering industrial growth in the world’s most populous country have compelled communities to push for change in communities afflicted by poor air quality. The Blue Map App app helps identify violations across 31 provinces by publishing real-time data on air and water quality and pollution data from 40,000 factories. The app is already prompting businesses to publicly address any published shortcomings in emissions violations – and pressuring those that aren’t releasing their numbers into doing so. The app’s team is hoping its model of transparency and accountability has the potential for global adoption.

Finalist Vinisha Umashankar
Idea a 14 year-old from the Indian city of Tiruvannamalai, Vinisha Umashankar’s solar-powered ironing cart exemplifies how a small idea, scaled, can have a potentially colossal impact. It was inspired when calculating that charcoal-powered clothing presses – used by many of India’s 10 million-strong workforce of on-street ironing vendors – burn some 5 million kilograms of charcoal every day. The manifestations of airborne particulates and associated diseases, deforestation, emissions and hazardous devices are solved at a stroke by a device that also allows phone charging and top ups, providing additional income on top of the six hours of profitable ironing possible using the cart. These multiple economic and environmental impacts and applications across Asia make Umashankar’s innovation readily scalable, if affordably produced.

Finalist Takachar
Idea if taken to the global market, this concept – pioneered by eco-entrepreneurs Vidyut Mohan and Kevin Kung – claims to be capable of cutting a billion tonnes of carbon emissions each year, and improve the air of 500 million people. Its target: agricultural waste. By this it's meant crop residues that are otherwise burned, choking the air around fields with smoke that reduces air quality – and as a result, life expectancy. Rather than a systemic rethink of time-worn farming strategies, Takachar’s solution is highly practical: an actual device that bolts on to the back of a tractor. This, according to the company, reduces smoke emissions by 98% and converts the waste material into biofuels and fertiliser, incentivising the process for its own profit-making – or cost saving – potential. Using a heat-driven drying process called oxygen-lean torrefaction, since launch in 2018, the device has been used by some 4,500 farmers, with reported income rises of 30%.    

Challenge: Revive our Oceans

Finalist National Geographic Pristine Seas
Idea spearheaded by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, Pristine Seas is a global drive to establish 30 per cent of the world's oceans as Marine Protected Areas by 2030. Protection means no fishing, restoration of biodiversity and the promotion of sustainable practices amongst local communities. The project has so far helped to establish 24 marine reserves around the world. “Science has shown us that we need to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030 in order to restore marine life, increase our seafood supply, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions,” said Sala. “It is an honour to be recognised as one of the first ever finalists for the Earthshot prize.”

He added: “We are excited but also feel a great deal of responsibility for continuing our work to preserve our [planet's] ocean life support system."

Finalist Living Seawalls
Idea Created by the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, the living seawalls project was born to turn increasingly necessary artificial coastal defences into marine life-friendly habitats. In this scenario, gone are the swathes of flat concrete and their devastating impact on shoreline ecosystems – instead the defences are covered in panels that mimic mangroves, corals and rock pools to encourage re-colonisation by marine life. Living Seawalls claim that coastal defences fitted with the panels host 36% more marine life after two years – logging 85 species of fish, invertebrates and seaweed sheltering and establishing themselves within their structures. Expanding from Australia into locations as diverse as Wales and Singapore, with increasing focus on extreme weather and rising sea levels the team believe their solution is ‘living proof our cities and oceans can coexist’. (See glorious pictures of Marine Protected Areas around the world.)   

Finalist Coral Vita
Idea Using a concept called microfragmenting (accelerated growth) and assisted evolution (resilience to changing ocean chemistry), Coral Vita bioengineers and farms coral built to be resilient to climate change. Founded by entrepreneurs Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern, the concept is based on the prediction that without technological intervention, 90% of the world’s coral will be destroyed by oceanic acidification by 2050 – with predictably terminal consequences for the ecosystems and land-based communities that rely on the reefs for protection, and income. Using their mode of land-based reef restoration, Coral Vita claims to be able to grow robust, future-resistant coral 50 times faster than their natural equivalents. Using culture tanks, the company experiments with acidity and heat to select the coral tissue demonstrating the most resilience, which then forms the basis of the culture – hence, ‘assisted evolution.’ These are then planted into degraded reefs – akin to a transplant – to grow and flourish. (Can we save coral reefs? Here's the science.)

Challenge: Build a Waste-Free World

Finalist WOTA Box
Idea Essentially a water treatment plant in a unit the size of a commercial coffee machine, WOTA Box – created by inventor Yosuke Maeda – aims to turn the water we expel from the sink, toilet and domestic appliances into drinking water. This reduces the amount of domestic pollutants entering freshwater ecosystems. With population growth its projected water demand will increase by 55% in the next 50 years, meaning increasing scarcity of the water we drink – and increasing pollution of it, due to the water we don’t – will be a problem many will inevitably face. This innovation aims to tackle both, at a local level.    

Finalist Sanenergy
Idea Another demand associated with ever-increasing urbanisation in emerging economies – and the associated population growth – is what to do with the waste we all ‘produce’ on a regular basis. The fate of the solid part of what we flush, and its demand on the food supply chain are both being considered by Sanenergy, which on project trials in Kenya uses black soldier fly larvae to break down faecal and organic waste in lavatories – before processing the larvae itself as rich, high-protein feed for livestock. The efficiency chain goes further, with any bi-product used as fertiliser, or converted into biomass fuel bricks.  

Finalist City of Milan
Idea Waste generated by supermarkets, restaurants and households is colossal: a UN report estimated that a third of food produced globally each year goes uneaten, in tandem with a world hunger problem that sees a reported 2.5 billion people living in various states of food insecurity. Milan tackled this problem at a local level by introducing portable food waste hubs to recover excess product from retailers and food outlets, and redistributing it to those in need of it. The initiative – spearheaded by city mayor Giuseppe Sala – aims to tackle food waste and food insecurity in one, with the target of reducing the former by 50% by 2030. The knock-on reduction in production will also have an emission reduction bonus, too.    

Challenge: Fix our Climate

Finalist AEM Electrolyser
Idea Renewable electricity can't be used to power everything. Issues around its availability and reliability everywhere, combined with the need to de-carbonise, means many industrial applications are turning to hydrogen for large-scale energy needs. While hydrogen itself is clean – mined from water using electrolysis – how it is obtained is a question worth asking if truly carbon-free energy is your goal. The AEM (Anion Exchange Membrane) electrolyser, produced by Enapter, aims to make hydrogen generation using renewable electricity accessible with microwave-sized, modular and stackable units capable of producing just over a 1 kilogram of hydrogen each for a range of applications every 24 hours.     

Finalist Reeddi capsules
Idea ‘A vending machine for power capsules’ is the elevator pitch for Reeddi, a modular ‘cleantech’ energy solution startup developed in Nigeria by Olugbenga Olubanjo. The Reeddi unit is essentially a solar-powered charger of super-efficient lithium battery packs, each the size of a drinks flask, which are rented for around 35p per day. Used to charge phones, laptops or anything requiring a power outlet, the aim of the company is to tackle the growing demand – and revenue opportunities – for fossil fuel burning by providing an efficient and affordable source of clean energy for developing communities.

Finalist SOLbazaar
Idea The simple concept of linking up solar panels on individual homes to a shared network of energy – enabling the occupant to sell electricity, via an efficient multi-centre grid – isn’t a new one. The idea of peer-to-peer ‘nano grids’ in rural communities, however, is more novel. Aiming to tackle the burning of charcoal and wood by households that find themselves either suddenly or habitually off-grid, SOLBazaar is another potentially multi-solution innovation, providing both clean power and a source of income to impoverished communities in need of both. With a target of 10,000 nano grids by 2030 – and ambitions to expand into e-rickshaw charging to further cut emissions – by beginning in Bangladesh, where over five million homes are already powered by the sun, SOLBazaar has an insightful testing ground for its model of providing efficient infrastructure in challenging regions.

Challenge: Protect and Restore Nature

Finalist Restor
Idea restoration of habitat, strengthening of ecosystems and therapeutic tree planting is a fine ambition – but without the knowledge needed to do it properly, it’s hard to make it successful. It’s estimated that survival rates amongst ecological restoration projects are less than 30% – a figure Restor aims to change. Described by its creators at the Crowther Lab as ‘an online ecosystem for the global nature restoration movement,’ the Swiss-based startup aims to connect those planting with quality information and networking opportunities. This is facilitated by making major scientific datasets accessible to conservationists to underpin restorative endeavours – anything from neighbourhood tree planting to wetland regeneration – and connecting similar projects worldwide.

Finalist Pole Pole Foundation
Idea One problem often leads to several, as rural regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo are experiencing. Food shortages and a poor economic situation has led to increased deforestation and poaching of valuable, vulnerable species – such as the Eastern Lowland Gorilla – for bushmeat and the illegal wildlife trade. Moderating communities’ reliance on the rainforest for solutions is the aim of the Pole Pole (Kiswahili for ‘slowly, slowly’) Foundation. This action includes planting a buffer zone of mature trees for harvest and fuel, and combating hunger by encouraging a nutrition-dense, plant-based diet with the local production of spirulina and mushrooms for nearby communities.

Finalist Costa Rica Government
Idea Two schemes pioneered in Costa Rica – the Payment for Ecosystem Service and the National System of Conservation Areas – pays its citizens, including those in indigenous communities, to plant trees and care for their neighbourhood ecology. This model, according to the country’s Ministry for Environment, ‘makes protecting nature profitable.’ With a multi-billion pound tourism economy driven by eco and wildlife travel, Costa Rica – with its national slogan, Pura Vida (‘pure life’) – has been hailed for its conservation efforts, which has seen extensive forest restoration over the last decade. Now it wants to export its ideas to its own urban centres, and increase its efforts beyond its borders to the wider world, in a drive to protect 30% of the world’s land and seas.

What happens now? 

The 15 finalists selected above will now be presented to the Earthshot Prize Council for final judging, with the five winners – one for each category – announced in London on 17 October. The five winners will each receive £1 million of investment to scale their ideas – and, in line with the organisers aspirations, make a difference. 

As David Attenborough said of the prize's launch, “it's a great source of hope. Let's hope it spreads around the world.


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