Prince William Announces Big Global Environmental Prize

The Earthshot Prize hopes to stimulate innovative solutions to the climate crisis.

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with David Attenborough
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough attend the naming ceremony of the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough in September 2019.

WPA Pool / Getty Images

Prince William of the British royal family announced a new environmental award on October 8. Called the Earthshot Prize, its goal is to encourage people to come up with innovative solutions to the climate crisis over the next ten years. 

The prize has five categories – protecting and restoring nature, cleaning the air, reviving oceans, reducing waste, and tackling climate change – and every year a winner will be chosen for each of these categories. The winner will receive £1 million (USD$1.3 million) to further their research.

In a radio interview played on CBC, William expressed his struggle to stay optimistic in the face of climate breakdown. While watching David Attenborough's "Extinction: The Facts" with his seven-year-old son George, William said the pair had to stop at times because they both felt so upset by what they were seeing. William felt a strong urge to do something, to take action before it's too late.

The Earthshot Prize is his answer, an attempt to have 50 viable solutions to the climate crisis in place by 2030 (when the original £50-million prize pot runs out). Prince William told CNN that it will be "the most prestigious environmental global prize to date" and that he hopes to "shift the debate from pessimism and negativity to optimism and hope." He went on:

"We want to change the conversation and show that we can provide solutions, we can tackle this, and in 10 years' time, we can make our planet more sustainable and more prosperous and better for everyone. My grandfather started doing stuff with conservation a long time ago, WWF particularly. My father was ahead of his time talking about climate change. I don't want to be ahead of my time because then we're already too late – now is the time to act."

The Earthshot Prize is made more glamorous by the presence of a celebrity-studded council that includes names such as Australian actor Cate Blanchett, Colombian popstar Shakira, Chinese billionaire philanthropist Jack Ma, Brazilian soccer player Dani Alves, and Attenborough himself. 

Other council members' names are less well-known, but they add credibility to the selection process – Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's former finance minister, Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, Chadian environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, and Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres who led the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

While I believe the intention of the Earthshot Prize is good and innovation should always be supported, I disagree that solutions are what's lacking. I think there are plenty of those already. (As an example, I wrote recently about regenerative agriculture and how it could draw down enormous quantities of carbon from the atmosphere if we changed the way we grow food.) The problem is that no one wants or knows how to implement these solutions. There's too little public support and even less political. I can't help but wonder if William's efforts would be better put toward using his royal clout to lobby the UK government to legislate radical climate policy.

That being said, it doesn't hurt to incentivize creativity and reward innovative thinkers. And if the focus is on environmental protection, all the better. Nominations for the Earthshot Prize (named after U.S. President John F. Kennedy's ambitious "moonshot" effort to put a man on the moon) will open on November 1, to be followed by an award ceremony in London next fall.