New Delhi shrouded in smog in 2017

The Earthshot Prize aims to tackle challenges including air pollution like that which affected New Delhi in 2017. Image © Saurav022/Shutterstock

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Five projects to 'fix the planet' win the inaugural Earthshot Prize

Methods to regrow coral reefs, restore rainforests and reuse food waste have each received a million pounds as part of the first-ever Earthshot Prize. 

The awards, launched by the Duke of Cambridge through his charity, the Royal Foundation, recognise those aiming to tackle humanity's biggest challenges in the next decade such as climate change, habitat loss and world hunger. 

Cities, countries and individuals are among the five winners of the inaugural Earthshot Prize announced on October 17. 

Ideas focusing on how to produce green hydrogen, restore rainforests and regrow coral reefs each received one million pounds to develop their schemes further so that they can be used as blueprints around the globe.  

Addressing the audience following the awards, the Duke of Cambridge said, 'I hope our Earthshot winners have shown you that there is no place for despair. You should feel inspired to act and to demand that the solutions you've seen tonight get all the support they need.  

'I want to say something all the young people watching tonight. For too long, we haven't done enough to protect the planet for your future. But Earthshot is for you. In the next 10 years, we are going to act. We are going to find the solutions to repair our planet. Please keep learning, keep demanding change, and don't give up hope. We will rise to these challenges.' 

A coral fragment held in a hand

Coral Vita was awarded one of the prizes for its work on coral farming techniques. Image © OhSurat/Shutterstock

Reef repair 

The Earthshot Prize was launched by His Royal Highness in 2020 with the aim of 'repairing the planet' by awarding five one-million-pound prizes every year for a decade. An award is made in one of five categories, with nominations submitted by over 200 organisations and then selected by a panel of judges. 

For 2020, more than 750 nominations were whittled down to a shortlist of 15, of which five were announced as the winners in a ceremony held at Alexandra Palace in London. 

The first winners, in the category of 'Revive Our Oceans', were Coral Vita, a firm founded by friends Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern. The company aims to grow corals in tanks on land using 'microfragmentation'.  

This involves taking a single piece of coral and breaking it apart, with each individual piece subsequently taking a fraction of the time to grow back to the size of the original specimen. The friends say this allows them to speed up coral growth by up to 50 times. 

Working with local communities to help educate and employ people to restore and protect the coral reef ecosystems, these pieces can then be 'planted' back in the ocean. 

Dr Kenneth Johnson, who studies corals at the Museum and is not involved with Coral Vita, said of their project, 'Reef restoration work is important because it might allow maintenance of reefs on small to medium scales by providing habitats allowing species to escape extinction.  

'The outgrown corals are grown in warmer and more acidic conditions by assisted evolution, which can help with the renovation of these communities. 

'However, there are a huge number of other taxa, from fish to invertebrates and algae, which live on coral reefs and need our help. We need to stop messing with coral reefs and protect them from anthropogenic impacts like pollution, poorly managed fisheries and ocean warming.  

'Schemes like Coral Vita will help with local impacts but the global ones require systematic change that hopefully we’re getting closer to achieving.' 

A tourist stands on stairs down to a rainforest waterfall in Costa Rica

The restoration of forests in Costa Rica has led to a huge growth in ecotourism in the country. Image © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Rainforest revival 

Meanwhile, the entire nation of Costa Rica was recognised for its work in protecting and restoring nature. The country launched the Payment of Environmental Services (PES) initiative in 1997 which gives money to communities and landowners to protect and restore its forests. 

This saw the country's forest cover grow from 24.4% in 1985 to over 50% by 2011. The restoration of biodiversity has also helped fuel Costa Rica's economy, with ecotourism now generating billions of dollars for the nation. 

Andrea Meza Murillo, Costa Rica's environment minister, has said that the prize money from the award will be invested to expand the scheme to other ecosystems, as well as advising other countries on how to replicate Costa Rica's initiative. 

'The PES scheme has been a very effective way of giving value to nature and to benefit different forest owners, both in indigenous territories and for private owners,' says Andrea. 'The time has come to replicate what has been done on land at sea.  

'The country has been making efforts in marine conservation and currently has modern tools to strengthen the protection of marine biodiversity. 

'We are proud to have the resources of this award to promote a marine conservation model, where we also promote economic recovery based on the valuation of ocean resources and innovative schemes based on protected areas and payment for ecosystem services.' 

Dr Sandra Knapp, a researcher in plant sciences at the Museum who was not involved with the project, says of the award, 'Costa Rica has long been a beacon of government investment into nature conservation.  

'Restoration of natural ecosystems through an incentive system requires the long-term commitment that the country has shown, and this scheme of course is dependent on sustained government investment.' 

Other winners of the Earthshot Prize include the city of Milan which uses hubs to collect food waste which can then be repurposed into meals for those who need it. The scheme provides around 260,000 meals per year. 

Indian firm Takachar received the 'Clean Our Air' award for developing portable equipment that converts waste left over after harvest into fuels and fertiliser. This ensures farmers do not need to burn the crop remnants, which contributes to severe air pollution and smog. 

Finally, AEM electrolyser is to use its prize money to scale up mass production of its electrolysis unit, which produces hydrogen from water using renewable electricity. Hydrogen is set to be a fuel of the future, used for energy-intensive industries like aviation where electric batteries may not be enough on their own. 

The next set of Earthshot Prizes are set to be awarded in a ceremony in 2022 in the USA.