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Environment: UN honours Young Champions of the Earth

Every year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) awards the Young Champions of the Earth prize to 7 scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and activists with bold ideas and solutions for sustainable environmental change.

Somewhere in Africa, an engineer is turning plastic rubbish into paving stones. An activist in North America is fighting to save an endangered salmon species.  An inventor in South America has developed a machine capable of pulling water out of the air.  And an engineer in Asia has developed a safe method of transforming waste biomass into fuels, fertilizers and chemicals.

They are among the winners of the 2020 Young Champions of the Earth prize, announced on 15 December by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  Drawn from seven regions around the globe, these under-30 activists were recognized for their commitment to tackling some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.  

Young change-makers

“Globally, young people are leading the way in calling for meaningful and immediate solutions to the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – we must listen,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

This year’s Young Champions are Nzambi Matee (Kenya), Xiaoyuan Ren (China), Vidyut Mohan (India), Lefteris Arapakis (Greece), Max Hidalgo Quinto (Peru), Niria Alicia Garcia (United States of America) and Fatemah Alzelzela (Kuwait).  Each will receive US$10,000 in seed funding and tailored training to help scale up their ideas.

These change-makers show how innovative ideas coupled with ambitious action can help solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Many of these initiatives are ground-breaking and the result of years of personal sacrifice.

Matee, a materials engineer, quit her job and spent her life savings developing a system to turn discarded plastic into inexpensive paving stones. Garcia has devoted years working to save the Chinook salmon, whose numbers have long been diminishing in the American West.  And Hidalgo worked with indigenous villages across Peru to develop a wind turbine that can siphon water from the air, an invention heralded as a lifeline for drought-prone communities.

“Globally, young people are leading the way in calling for meaningful and immediate solutions to the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – we must listen,” Andersen said. 

Experiencing the heavy smog over New Delhi as a result of stubble burning by farmers after harvesting, Mohan pioneered a portable machine, allowing farmers to earn extra income by converting crop waste into fuels, fertilizers and activated carbon, without releasing harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Alarmed at the enormous amount of plastic waste in the Mediterranean waters, Arapakis started the first professional fishing school of Greece, to teach the local fishing community to collect plastic from the sea, allowing both fish stocks and the ecosystem to recover.

Alzelzela started a non-profit recycling initiative that exchanges trees and plants for waste from homes, schools and businesses in Kuwait.  Since its launch in 2019, her enterprise has recycled over 130 tonnes of metal, paper and plastic.

Ren heads a data platform that tests and records the quality of groundwater across a thousand villages in rural China into an app so residents know where to find clean water.  

Every single act counts

“As we enter this decisive decade where we work to cut emissions and protect and restore ecosystems, UNEP Young Champions demonstrate that all of us can contribute,” Andersen said. “Every single act for nature,” she stressed, “counts, and we need the entire spectrum of humanity to share this global responsibility and this profound opportunity.”

The Young Champions of the Earth prize aims to inspire more young people to become stewards of the environment. With pollution, species loss and climate change all accelerating, that is considered crucial to the future of the planet.

The seven prize winners were selected by a global jury of experts following a public nomination process.  Their elevation follows the announcement earlier this week of the 2020 Champions of the Earth, the UN’s highest environmental honour, awarded to seasoned environmental leaders whose actions are having a transformative impact on the environment.  (Source: UNEP) – Vatican News

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