The Earthshot Prize winners have been announced – here's what happens next.

The winners of the prestigious environment prize – announced in October – answer five questions about the future of their ideas, and of our world.

Published 5 Nov 2021, 19:17 GMT
From novel ways of repurposing agricultural waste to a clean step forward in renewable energy – ...

From novel ways of repurposing agricultural waste to a clean step forward in renewable energy – the Earthshot Prize winners aim to tackle a range of critical environmental challenges. 

Photograph by Felix Busse / Alamy

ON OCTOBER 17, at a ceremony at London's Alexandra Palace, five awards of a million pounds were given to five ideas – ideas that had convinced judges they had the potential to help save our world.  

Selected from 15 finalists, the five winners of the inaugural Earthshot Prize had demonstrated that investment in their solutions to tackle five of our world's most pressing environmental problems – 'Earthshots' – could have a meaningful impact when mobilised at scale. 

The Duchess of Cambridge speaking at The Earthshot Prize at Alexandra Palace, London, October 17th 2021. The Prize is awarded by The Royal Foundation of the Duchess and her husband Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

(Read: The 15 ideas vying for the most prestigious environmental prize in history.)

Ranging from coral bioengineering to the policies of an entire city, here the winners of the 2021 Earthshot Prize answer five questions about how their ideas will translate into impact to help reverse human impact on our planet.

Earthshot: Clean Our Air

"Sustainability is about prioritising needs over wants in making day to day choices, while having empathy for all living beings.” Vidyut Mohan, co-founder of Takachar.

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

Vidyut Mohan, co-founder of Takachar 

India-based startup Takachar manufactures a device that uses oxygen-lean torrefaction to turn agricultural waste into useful biofuels and fertiliser – thus cutting the need for it to be burned, with acrid and harmful smoke the end result. 

Congratulations, you’ve won the most prestigious environmental award in history. What’s your next move? We look forward to scaling our solution beyond our initial pilots in India, Kenya and the US to not only serve more farmers in these regions, but beyond as well. We also look forward to processing various other kinds of crop and forest residues such as rice straws, coconut shells, pine needles, sugarcane trash, rice husks etc, and prevent smoke emissions arising out of their open burning.

Tackling climate change one idea at a time must feel daunting. What do you hope your win will inspire? Both Kevin and I started working on biomass burning problems that we witnessed in our immediate neighbourhoods. Tackling climate change for the whole planet can feel daunting, but all of us can start small by working on easily relatable local environmental problems first. We hope to inspire everyone to start small, and if everyone does that, you can dent big collectively.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? Always fall in love with the problem and the needs of the user, and then work backwards to develop the solution in a co-creative and iterative manner.

Do you think the past two years have changed people’s relationship with the planet? The experience with COVID-19 has shown people, that the world might be politically separated but interconnected in every other way. The impact of climate change, similar to COVID-19, will be felt by everyone, although in an iniquitous way with the poor being impacted the most. The impetus to work collectively has never been greater.

(Related: what is COP26 and why is it a big deal?)

If you could ask the world to do one thing, what would it be? Sustainability is about prioritising needs over wants in making day to day choices, while having empathy for all living beings. For example, do we really need the latest mobile phone with the latest tech, if our earlier one is sufficient to get the job done for us? If our old phone is discarded for a new just to fulfil our desire, who else can it impact? If more people appreciate this, we can create a caring, prosperous and cleaner world much faster.

Earthshot: Revive our Oceans

Gator Halpern (centre), President of Coral Vita.

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern, co-founders of Coral Vita 

Coral Vita, based in the Bahamas, cultivates coral in land-based tanks that have been selected for their resistance to temperature rise and acidification. The coral is then transplanted into failing reefs, which have suffered catastrophic decline, to breed from the hardier strains and re-establish habitat and biodiversity.  

You’ve won the most prestigious environmental award in history. What’s your next move? Firstly, while this is the honour of a lifetime for Coral Vita we must pay sincere tribute to the incredible coral scientists, practitioners, and community leaders who’ve been fighting for decades to protect these ecosystems. For us, the Earthshot Prize jumpstarts our ability to generate greater impact. We currently have a scalable pilot coral farm in Grand Bahama that can grow up to 30k corals each year. With an eye on expanding our farm here to restore reefs throughout The Bahamas, we also aim to start developing a global network of large-scale coral farms capable growing millions of corals annually to achieve ecosystem-scale restoration. (Related: how can we save coral reefs?)

Tackling climate change one idea at a time must feel daunting. What do you hope your win will inspire? We hope that our success inspires others to create mission-driven companies that address the most world's most vital issues. We also hope it inspires our leaders to rapidly solve for things that kill coral reefs in the first place like the climate crisis and habitat destruction. The climate crisis is indeed daunting, and the future will certainly look different than the past. But it's up to us, to the generations alive today, to use our talents, resources, and willpower to ensure that the future can be as beautiful, plentiful, and safe as possible. We are experiencing a tipping point in the path of life on our planet, and by working together to address climate destabilisation we can drastically improve the future for everyone on Earth. 

"We remain committed to this work because failure is not an option.” Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern, founders of Coral Vita. 

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? Perseverance can achieve seemingly impossible tasks. Our journey building Coral Vita has been a rollercoaster, with some unexpected and even tragic turns along the way. From plane crashes to experiencing the climate crisis firsthand through Hurricane Dorian to weathering the pandemic, we remain committed to this work because failure is not an option. Through all the ups and downs, we never stopped doing everything we could to make our dream into a reality. Things rarely went as smoothly as we planned, and often took far longer than we hoped. But through resilience and the support of our team, advisors, friends, and our community here in Grand Bahama, we’ve developed an even greater commitment to protecting the ecosystems that sustain us all.

Do you think the past two years have changed people’s relationship with the planet Absolutely. The pandemic has shown how interconnected our world is, as COVID19, just like climate destabilisation, touches every point of our globe. While we've tried to address the pandemic, however, the destruction of the environment has continued apace, with climate-related disasters providing flashpoints to underscore how people around the world are increasingly impacted by the imbalance between humanity and nature. Two other important lessons from the pandemic though are clear: 1) if we give nature a chance to recover it can and 2) after all the money that seemingly materialised from nowhere to fund economic recovery efforts, when considering the true future cost of inaction by failing to solve the climate crisis, the argument that paying for climate action now is too costly holds no water.

(Related: to prevent pandemics, stop disrespecting nature.)

If you could ask the world to do one thing, what would it be? Protect the ecosystems that sustain us all. Our prosperity and security are inextricably linked to a healthy environment. If the local environmental conditions and global climatic systems that underpin everything from food production to human migration to coastal erosion are thrown out of balance, humanity faces terrible threats. If you're lucky enough to live in a democratic society, hold the politicians responsible for environmental degradation accountable by voting those who lie about this reality out of office. And hold business leaders who share that responsibility accountable too by voting with your wallet.

We understand what is causing climate destabilisation and we know that the consequences of inaction are immeasurably huge. We each must stand up for humanity and biodiversity and demand that our leaders do the same. If meaningful climate action isn't at the top of your representative's priorities, then they are acting in the best interest of themselves or the few, not in yours or the many. 

(Related: why climate change is still the biggest threat to human health.)

Earthshot: Fix Our Climate

The AEM Electrolyser being manufactured at the Enapter facility.

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

Vaitea Cowan, Co-Founder, Enapter – maker of the AEM Electrolyser

AEM Electrolyser, manufactured by Enapter, is a microwave-sized device that uses renewable energy to obtain hydrogen from water using a process called anion-exchange membrane (AEM) electrolysis. This can be then be used for a range of domestic applications, and stacked for heavier industrial usage, with the aim of cutting carbon output in electricity production.

Congratulations – you’ve won the most prestigious environmental award in history. What’s your next move? First, hire more people! Our goal is to drive down the cost of green hydrogen to rapidly replace fossil fuels. To do this, we’re scaling up the production of our AEM Electrolysers and need many new colleagues to help us. Second, scale up production! We’re building the Enapter Campus in Germany: it’s planned to go into initial operation by 2023, mass producing electrolysers with 100% locally-generated renewable energy. We want to show that renewable energy tech can be scaled up without environmental trade-offs.

Tackling climate change one idea at a time must feel daunting. What do you hope your win will inspire? We hope it can inspire action. Our team works under the principles of urgency, simplicity, and transparency as these are what we need to rapidly have an impact. Great things can happen when a team of dedicated people come together to develop an idea in the fight against climate change, and we saw many such inspiring teams in the Earthshot Prize. We have the solutions to repair our planet, so let’s not waste any time.

(Related: 26 changemakers fighting for the planet.)

"Our team works under the principles of urgency, simplicity, and transparency as these are what we need to rapidly have an impact." Vaitea Cowan, Co-Founder and Head of Communications for Enapter, manufacturers of the AEM Electrolyser. 

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? While we need to urgently fight climate change, the act of doing so takes endurance. We have achieved a lot since starting Enapter in November 2017, and we still have some ground to cover towards meeting our objective: making green hydrogen cheaper than fossil fuels. While we will get there towards the middle of the decade, we need to make sure that we take the time to rest and recover along the way to be able to keep going. Change does not happen overnight and since we believe the AEM electrolyser will be critical in repairing our planet, we need to make sure we’re ready for the long run.

Do you think the past two years have changed people’s relationship with the planet?Ultimately, I think it has changed the way many of us view the planet, its health, and our own health: We value all these things much more than before. Despite the tragic consequences of COVID-19, it has shown us that if there is a will there is a way. We accelerated our pace of change in adopting new technologies in health and digitalisation of work processes. We can do the same in adopting clean energy solutions.

If you could ask the world to do one thing, what would it be? I wish I could ask the world to wake up to the unique opportunity we have. There has never been a better time for positive change. We have all the tools and solutions to phase out fossil fuels. At Enapter, our aim is making green hydrogen affordable for all. Low cost and accessibility will empower people to unlock decentralised green energy solutions and carbon-cutting business models that were previously impossible. Let’s go!

Earthshot: Build a Waste-Free World

"Thanks to the food hubs, we are reducing almost one thousand five hundred tons of greenhouse gases from polluting our city, and the earth.” The city of Milan's food hub scheme in action. 

Photograph by The Earthshot Prize

Anna Scavuzzo, Vice-Mayor, City of Milan

The Italian city of Milan adopted a city-wide approach to tackling waste food, with the adoption of 'food hubs' – a co-ordinated system where spare food is recouped from corporate canteens and restaurants then distributed to those is need through a network of NGOs. The food hub system seeks to reduce waste and the associated energy demands whilst easing food poverty. 

You’ve won the most prestigious environmental award in history. What’s your next move? We now have a very high-profile recognition of the potential of our initiative and will continue to expand it and scale it up in Milan, as well as disseminate it to interested cities worldwide to contribute to zero food waste at the planetary level. Milan aims to cut food waste in half by 2030. We are sharing our food waste solutions with other cities around the world. This really is collaboration at a local and global level.

Tackling climate change one idea at a time must feel daunting. What do you hope your win will inspire? Helping to fight climate change with food was natural for us. As a city committed to producing zero waste and to sustain good food systems, we knew we had to tackle food waste seriously. So we set up local food waste hubs that recover food surpluses from local supermarkets and canteens and redistribute it to people in need, through local neighbourhood networks. The hubs guarantee the recovery and redistribution of about twenty tons of food per month, that’s the equivalent of around forty-thousand meals!

“The hubs system can be adjusted to other cities’ characteristics and can become champions of food security and inclusive climate action worldwide.”

Anna Scavuzzo, City of Milan

Thanks to the hubs, we are reducing almost 1,500 tons of greenhouse gases from polluting our city, and the Earth. We hope other cities will see the potential of it and follow suit: the hubs system can be adjusted to other cities’ characteristics and can become champions of food security and inclusive climate action worldwide.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? The Earthshot Prize is a wonderful way to showcase to a wide public how many brilliant ideas and activities exist that are beneficial for the people and the planet, and can be scaled up to the benefits of all of us. I am happy that, in recognising the City of Milan, the Prize has acknowledged the role of cities in the environmental transition and inclusive climate action. We would like to thank the C40 Cities network for having nominated Milan [for] the Earthshot Prize. The meaning of a city like Milan receiving such an important recognition is also that it makes it possible for more cities around the world to get to know our idea and take it forward on their own ground.

Do you think the past two years have changed people’s relationship with the planet?They have indeed. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated an awareness-raising process that was already under way because we have never felt as linked and interconnected before. We feel that young people are the ones that have really helped all of us to look at the state of our planet and at how things can be done differently, for a more respectful way of living for both people and the planet.

The key is the feeling that everyone of us can make a difference. To achieve zero food waste,  individual choices and habits of consumption are very powerful, and they can also positively impact on the way food is produced, transported and delivered.

If you could ask the world to do one thing, what would it be? Do not waste food, please! Food is a vital element to all human beings. Not everyone has the opportunity to have the food that is needed to function well. Those of us who do, need to value and respect food. It is unacceptable to waste food, while so many people still go hungry. Lots of other things are wasted when food is thrown away, including our environment. If we rescue food that would otherwise be wasted, there are people that get fed: saving food ultimately saves lives.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

The Costa Rica Ministry for Environment did not respond with a comment before this story was published. 

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