A corporate titan with an unconventional agenda; the food specialists who looked outside the (takeaway) box; the ocean explorer whose name has become synonymous with conservation: these are just some of the environmental heroes who have dedicated their lives to bringing their audacious visions of a better world to life.
These pioneers are all previous winners of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth award—the world’s flagship environmental honour—and their actions have inspired others to join them in their fight for a cleaner, fairer and more sustainable world.
As the countdown begins to the announcement of this year’s Champions of the Earth, and ahead of a pivotal Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019, the energy and vision demonstrated by previous Champions are needed more than ever as the world races to decisively cut carbon emissions before the worst effects of global warming become inevitable.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants world leaders, businesses and civil society to come to the Summit with concrete plans to cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Sustainable Development Goals.
What is required is nothing less than a complete transformation of economies and societies. In short, it’s a job for heroes.
Thankfully, we already have model citizens to lead us forward. The Champions of the Earth have shown year after year that real change is possible if individuals commit to overhaul the way they live so that we safeguard the planet’s resources and ensure our own survival.
Here we look at five Champions of the Earth who transformed their own worlds.
The trailblazing tycoon: Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever
2015 laureate for entrepreneurial vision
During more than a decade as Chief Executive Officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, Paul Polman always dared to do things differently. Long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, he sought to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and increase Unilever’s positive social impact.
Since stepping down last year, Polman has continued his work to put sustainability at the heart of global business. He is chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and recently co-founded the Imagine foundation to help eradicate poverty and stem climate change by helping companies pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. He announced the news on Twitter, quoting the lyrics of the John Lennon song: “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.”
Polman would like to see “heroic Chief Executive Officers” drive a shift to a low-carbon, more inclusive way of doing business. This call chimes perfectly with one of the six priorities laid out by Guterres for the Climate Action Summit—mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience.
The Summit’s ambitious agenda finds an echo in Polman’s heart: tweeting out Guterres’ call for urgent action at the meeting, he wrote: “With extreme heat getting worse, nature is telling us what we already know: there’s no time to waste against climate change.”
The food mavericks: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods
2018 laureates for science and innovation
The role of agriculture in the production of greenhouse gases has led to mounting calls for people to move towards a more plant-based diet. But how can you get hungry, red meat-loving consumers to shift?
The entrepreneurial founders of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, who won the Champions of the Earth award for creating sustainable alternatives to beef burgers, took up that challenge with gusto.
Beyond Meat worked with top scientists to strip down the core components of meat and extract them from plants instead, using ingredients like peas, beetroot, coconut oil and potato starch.
Impossible Foods took a slightly different tack to arrive at a similar result. Chief Executive Officer Patrick O. Brown’s team discovered an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every cell of every animal and plant and that is responsible for the unique flavours and aromas of meat. They used this knowledge to produce a meatless burger.
The two companies have tapped into a growing demand, especially among younger consumers, for products that are good for both planet and people, proving that it makes good business sense to harness this hunger for products that don’t cost the earth.
Their can-do attitude is exactly what’s needed on a global scale to tackle our climate crisis.
As Patrick O. Brown says: “There are huge global problems, but they are solvable and we’re going to solve them. Just wait.”
The Son of the Desert: Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Resources Group
2017 laureate for lifetime achievement
When Wang Wenbiao bought the Hangjinqi Saltworks in the middle of the Kubuqi desert in Inner Mongolia in 1988, he embarked on an adventure that would see him rise to the top of the country’s largest private green industries enterprise, Elion Resources Group.
His journey began, as most interesting journeys do, with a problem—how to make the saltworks profitable when the creeping desert was swallowing the salt lake, damaging equipment and making it difficult to transport the salt to market?
Wang, who grew up in Kubuqi, partnered with local communities and the Beijing government to fight the advancing sands and give hope to some of the 70,000 people who had been struggling to survive. In doing so, he showed how private industry could contribute to the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, while still turning a profit.
Wang set up a special fund to pay for afforestation and assigned a third of his staff to plant trees around the lake. He also encouraged local people to grow licorice, a hardy plant that grows well in deserts and is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Elion provided locals with seeds, training and other support, and also bought the harvest at a fair price.
Today, around two thirds of the desert has been greened and Wang, who is known as the Son of the Desert, says he is in it for the long haul.
“Greening the deserts is like a marathon, as long as there is a desert, my marathon will not come to an end,” he said.
The Dutch dreamer: Boyan Slat
2014 laureate for inspiration and action
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat was only 19 when he won the Champion of the Earth award for inspiration and action but he was already a young man on a mission: to clean the seas of plastic waste using a revolutionary floating boom.
Since then, Slat has brought his vision to life with The Ocean Cleanup project and although his team was forced to bring the first prototype back to port, they have now returned to sea, hoping to scoop up some of the trillions of pieces of plastic that are choking our fish, killing marine wildlife, damaging coral reefs and turning beaches into rubbish dumps.
Slat’s ongoing passion for the project reflects growing public concern. In 2017, the UN Environment Programme launched its Clean Seas campaign to inspire governments, businesses and people to take action, including cleaning beaches, cutting plastic use and investing more in recycling facilities.
Slat’s original System 001—a 600-metre-long U-shaped floater with a tapered three-metre-deep skirt attached below to trap the plastic—was launched in September 2018 and towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic swell of rubbish twice the size of France.
But The Ocean Cleanup team found that the floater was failing to hold onto the plastic. They tried to modify the design at sea, but were eventually forced to tow the system back to port after it suffered a fatigue fracture.
More tests and modifications were needed but in August, Slat said System 001/B had arrived at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“We move forward cautiously knowing we may be presented with more unscheduled learning opportunities… Yet it is safe to say that we are closer than ever to having a tool capable of cleaning up these garbage patches for good,” he wrote on The Ocean Cleanup website.
Her Deepness: Sylvia Earle
2014 laureate for lifetime leadership
A renowned pioneer of deep sea exploration and a distinguished marine biologist, Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to exploring and protecting the oceans. Her philosophy is simple: “We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.”
Earle, 83, has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater across over 100 expeditions—including leading the first team of women aquanauts and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000-metres. Her list of laudatory titles is impressive: she has been called Her Deepness, a Living Legend, a Hero for the Planet, and the Face of Marine Biology.
Earle was the first woman to serve as the Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and, since 1998, she has been Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.
She is also the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc and the Sylvia Earle Alliance as well as being the leader of the National Geographic Society Sustainable Seas Expeditions.
In 2009, she founded Mission Blue, a global alliance to ignite public support for the protection of a network of Hope Spots—special places that are vital to the health of the ocean. The alliance aims to bring about a significant increase in ocean protection by 2020.
In 2014, she was awarded the Champions of the Earth prize for lifetime leadership. And that works goes on. Earle is still travelling the world, seeking to inspire others with her passion to preserve our seas.