Prince William's Earthshot Prize Won't Save the Planet

Prince William’s Earthshot Prize Won’t Save the Planet

I hate to pour cold water on the Prince of Wales’ big night out in Boston on Friday, where he hosted the Earthshot Prize for Climate Change Solutions. William needs all the help he can get to distract his brother and sister-in-law as they continue their mad attack on the royal family. And there’s nothing wrong with the Earthshot Prize itself, as a means of recognizing and rewarding entrepreneurs who develop environmentally friendly innovations. Good luck to them.

But sorry, the heir to the throne’s big idea doesn’t even match his lofty climate-transforming ambitions. All it manages to do is remind the world how ridiculously far we are from achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, or sooner, without driving the global masses into poverty. .

The stated goal of Earthshot – which takes its name from President Kennedy’s Moonshot Speech, which sought to find ways to land an American on the Moon by the end of the 1960s – is to “find and develop the solutions that will fix our planet this decade.” ‘. The bumf continues: “The Earthshot Prize aims to discover and help scale innovative solutions that put the world firmly on a trajectory towards a stable climate by 2030 – a world in which communities, oceans and biodiversity can thrive in harmony.”

When you’ve set this as your ambition, it’s perhaps inevitable that the results will feel a bit underwhelming. Making food containers from seaweed rather than plastic – as one of this year’s five winners does – is highly commendable and will be much appreciated at an organic market in the Cotswolds, but will it help stabilize the climate by 2030? Another award winner this year is making flatbed greenhouses for Indian smallholders – a twist on what B&Q has been doing for decades, but bringing the benefits of mass-produced horticultural equipment to developing countries. Another winning company is making stoves in Kenya that burn a clean mix of charcoal, wood and sugar cane rather than fossil fuels, claiming to reduce pollution in huts by up to 90%. Again, very useful for poor Kenyans, but not really an answer as to how you enable industrialization in low income countries without increasing carbon emissions. Rather, it is what William’s father used to call “intermediate technology”.

The fourth winner is a group of Indigenous Australian women who are “empowering each other to protect critical ecosystems”, trying to counter the statistic that “only 20% of Indigenous Rangers are women”. It’s all very inclusive and diverse – although it does have a slight whiff of infamous, and now gone, British aid project which proposed to bring Kenya’s meteorological office together with indigenous ‘rainmakers’ in the hope that they could come up with a ‘consensus weather forecast’.

There is only one of the five winners who really comes close to Earthshot’s central ambition of giving the world a “stable climate” by 2030. An Omani company called 44.01 has developed a way to use a mineral, peridotite, to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The mineral naturally absorbs carbon dioxide in its weathering process, which 44.01 seeks to accelerate by pulverizing the mineral and thereby increasing the surface area over which the weathering process can take effect. But no one should get too excited: the company’s website only hints that its process will cost an amount comparable to other forms of carbon capture – methods that themselves have struggled to catch on in cost reason. The company says there is enough peridotite in the world to enable it to remove 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air by 2040. To put that into context, the carbon emissions from human beings were 36.3 billion tonnes in 2021.

If we’re going to have a prize that truly helps us get closer to net zero emissions by 2050, an affordable way to capture carbon is definitely something you’d hope to be among the top five winners. The other four would be:

  • An affordable means of energy storage, without which an energy network based on intermittent renewable energies such as wind and solar simply will not work. The problem is that at present all the available technologies – pumped storage, hydrogen electrolysis and lithium batteries – cost, MWh for MWh, many times more to store the energy than it costs to produce it in the first place.
  • Commercially competitive steel made using hydrogen, rather than coal, as the reducing agent. Without it, we will not be able to eliminate the roughly 10% of global carbon emissions that come from steelmaking.
  • Commercially competitive cement that does not produce carbon dioxide as part of the chemical process – and is currently responsible for 7% of global emissions.

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  • An affordable way to fly 50 miles without burning fossil fuels. Forget electric planes – the batteries are twice as heavy for transatlantic flight. There are potential solutions involving synthetic fuels but, as always, the issue is cost.

If we can’t solve these problems, we’re not going to get close to net zero carbon emissions. Unlike landing on the moon, our ambitions will crash and burn before we even reach low-altitude orbit.

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