While necessary and inspiring, Prince William’s annual Earthshot prize demonstrates our painfully slow progress at finding technical solutions to our environmental problems.
“The Earth is at a tipping point and we face a stark choice: either we continue as we are and irreparably damage our planet, or we remember our unique power as human beings and our continual ability to lead, innovate and problem-solve,” says Prince William.
Last year’s six winners are deserving of the accolade. But for someone brought up on the promises of what was once called “alternative technology”, the Earthshot entrants convey a strong feeling of déjà vu.
There’s the “clean fuel” cookstoves for Africa (saves on deforestation and indoor smoke); an inexpensive “greenhouse-in-a-box” for smallholder farmers (saves water and protects against the sun); a network of woman rangers in Australia that engages indigenous women to protect the Great Barrier Reef; a UK start-up making a plastic alternative from seaweed; an Oman start-up that mineralises CO2, promising to provide a cheaper and guaranteed method of locking away CO2.
Other than the VC-funded seaweed (not)-plastics company, called Notpla, the rest appear to get their capital from foundations and other philanthropic sources. This is just as it was in the 1960/70s when photovoltaics and wind turbines were the preoccupation of hippie tinkerers. Their efforts were well demonstrated at the Centre for Alternative Technology sited in a damp, disused slate quarry near a Welsh town called Machynlleth.
It was Prince William’s father, now King Charles, who promoted the Centre which continues to demonstrate water, wind and solar power, and the benefits of insulation. Wind and solar are now commonplace and competing with fossil fuels. Insulation, long proven as an energy saver, remains a Cinderella technology in most parts of the world grown lazy on cheap fossil fuels. Just crank up the AC or heating and all will be well.
Recently, the UK has witnessed extraordinary scenes of regular citizens calling themselves Insulate Britain blocking roads and calling for government action. Remarkable because these calls have been made politely for decades with little action from government to tighten building standards and, more important, encourage the retrofitting of the country’s leaky housing stock.
A major reason for our inability to make rapid technical progress is in the way innovation is funded. Companies and investors are understandably reticent to capitalise risky ventures with no guaranteed markets. Venture capitalists are more willing to bet on projects that could revolutionise an industry (like finding an environmentally friendly plastic) leading to stratospheric financial returns. But VCs are uninterested in technologies, such as energy saving techniques, that provide only incremental change and low returns.
While revolutionary tech is desperately needed, it’s obvious that incremental improvements are necessary if we are, as Prince William says, to repair the earth quickly. And this is where the role of government is so important. Take insulation. It is government that sets standards, which boosts markets, creating the incentives for industry to respond with suitable products and services.
It’s bad energy policy that has made Germany so dependent on Russia for its energy. It’s the lack of any coherent energy policy that has left the UK entirely dependent on gas to heat its uninsulated homes. It’s bad industrial policy that has left the US dependent on China for its solar and wind technologies.
“People can achieve great things. The next ten years present us with one of our greatest tests – a decade of action to repair the Earth,” says Prince William.
You can’t argue with that. But it’s not going to come from African cook stoves and cheap greenhouses, no matter how good they are for the planet and some of its people. Maybe the Prince should award Vladimir Putin a prize. By weaponizing the West’s policy weaknesses he could, ironically, save us from our self-inflicted destruction. His cruelty has forced us into confronting the grim environmental reality so effectively highlighted by the Earthshot prize.