Earthshot Prize: Prince William announces five winners

The once and future king – all right, the future king at least, awarded the winners of his prize a cool million each.

“I believe that the Earthshot solutions you have seen this evening prove we can overcome our planet’s greatest challenges,” Prince William said during the ceremony.

In fact, several of the Earthshot solutions prove the exact opposite. The one that really, really made me spit feathers was this:

Mukuru Clean Stoves, Kenya: Kenya’s Mukuru Clean Stoves is a female-founded business with mostly female staff. They produce stoves that are fired by processed biomass made from charcoal, wood and sugarcane instead of solid fuels, which can lead to air pollution and accidents that claim four million lives each year, the Earthshot Prize said.

The stoves – about the size of a pressure cooker – run on “processed biomass” instead of “solid fuels.” Rarely has a distinction bridged such a narrow gap. What, the combination of wood, charcoal and sugarcane is not solid?

Yes, a very big yes, to getting rid of indoor air pollution. If I look up from where I am typing this, I can see my own stove. It’s an electric cooker with a halogen hob. I switch it on at the wall and the hotplates get, uh, very hot, quite fast. There is no smoke, unless I go to do something and forget that I’m also frying tofu.

I don’t want a smelly stove that burns “processed biomass.” I don’t want Africans to have smelly stoves that burn “processed biomass” either. I want them to have what I have. An electricity grid. A kitchen. Cheap and reliable (kof, splutter, ok got me there) electricity. At the very worst our African friends should be cooking on a propane stove. But no. Not according to the future king. Our (that’s the royal plural talking) ambition for Africa is permanent poverty.

This spectacle – of the great and good flying to Boston to celebrate the Heir’s Fruitloop Prize – only reinforces the fact that the Heir and his mates are out of touch. It is self-congratulatory nonsense. None of these people would so much as touch one of these stoves with the tip of their shoe so as to edge it out of the way.

Now, I do not mean to dismiss the worth of any of the prize winners, including the stove manufacturers. No doubt the new stove is an improvement on the existing manner of cooking food for many Kenyans. But if the new cooker is not good enough for rich western countries, if it is not good enough for the Heir to the Realm… it should not be considered good enough for African people, either. Any Westerners cheering this stove project should rip out their Smeg cooker and give it to charity, buy one of these stoves, and live for a year cooking with this “processed biomass.”

To Africans: demand that your leaders give you what we in the West have. That means a reliable electricity grid providing cheap electricity. If the only way that can come about is by coal-powered generators, than that is what it must be. Do not allow our future king to shrink the ambitions you have for your people.

And if Westerners say: “But Teh Climate!”

You should reply: “What about it?”

17 Comments

  1. I can’t find anything useful about the stoves and fuels sold by Mukuru Clean Stoves. Lots of articles and videos about the company’s founder and her all-female sales force but nothing about how the stoves work (I don’t think they are rocket stoves) or how the non-solid processed biomass fuel is made.

    MCS says it has sold more than 70,000 clean stoves since 2017* and that that they are a lot cheaper than local alternatives – but that isn’t always a good thing. Heavily subsidised stoves like MCS’s could drive un-subsidised local companies out of business. (From memory, this is what happened in Uganda when NGOs started distributing cheap stoves.) MCS also says that, compared to ‘traditional stoves’ (which traditional stoves?) and open fires, its stove ‘decreases fuel consumption by 30-60%, reduces toxic smoke emissions by 50-90% and lowers the risk of burns in children under 5 years by 40%’. Great. But where is the proof?

    This company is getting a lot of money from foreign philanthropists so it must have provided facts about its product and proof of its claims about the stove’s performance, but where? Can anyone help? I can’t even find a video of the stove being used.

    ===
    *Or that’s what MCS’s website said until about an hour ago. It now says more than 200,000 – quit a surge in an hour!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You have to judge the new stoves and the fuel they burn relative to what they replace. Is it an improvement?
    I don’t know, but from my experience almost anything could be. I remember struggling out of a Kenyan hut spluttering and coughing and with eyes streaming. Yet Kenyan women cooked day in those circumstances and day out.

    Yes clean electric stoves should be an ultimate goal but improvements can be made in small steps. The infrastructure to support electric cookers will take a long time to install and for the populace to accept as well as needing to improve living standards to make the stoves affordable.

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  3. Vinnie, there are limits to the performance of these magic stoves – I will accept that they improve marginally on open fires.

    Mark, I presume the BBC are partners because they broadcast the awards?

    Alan, it makes sense that a stove is better than an open fire. The fuel is more contained and there are no smouldering bits around the periphery (depending on how the fuel is fed in). But that improvement is slight – and as Vinnie says, the evidence is thin. I don’t know about you – but if I was designing a stove, a flue would be an essential part. Not in evidence here.

    This might be a good moment to bring up Lex Fridman’s recent discussion with Bjorn Lomborg and Andy Revkin. Revkin mentioned an entrepreneur in Nairobi selling propane in increments that the residents could afford. And again there is no comparison between an open fire or a flueless “solid fuel” stove and a propane stove. See below (it took awhile to find the right point), but the entire discussion is worth your 4 hours, for anyone who has 4 hours to spare.

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  4. I’ve made another visit to the Earthshot website, and am finding the information painfully thin regarding all of the winners, I’m afraid. Worthy people, no doubt, but it would be nice to know why in each case they are deserving of a large prize. The ones I was looking at are the Australian native women apparently helping to save the Great Barrier Reef by using their indigenous knowledge. It sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, after reading about them on the website, I’m none the wiser.

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  5. Mark, I might have mentioned at some stage that Ecology is Mostly Common Sense. The common sense approach to ocean conservation is: leave it the hell alone. I leave it to others to measure the worth of this indigenous conservation knowledge that might agree with me or say otherwise.

    Should Wills be looking for another recipient of his prize, I am not too proud to accept a million buckaroos for my own training course in ocean conservation. The course lasts 1.57 seconds. I walk into the room and say,

    “Leave it the hell alone.”

    Then I spin on my heel, probably falling over, and eventually manage to make an undignified exit.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We had a wood/biomass (dried cow dung) stove in our house in Nigeria. The cook always left a smouldering stick hanging out the front, the smoke helped keep away mosquitos ! We also had a bottle gas hob thing but never any gas.

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  7. the UK winner gets a big thumbs up from the BEEB – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-63841761

    “Notpla: UK plastic-alternative developer among £1m Earthshot Prize winners”

    “Hackney-based Notpla first developed an edible “bubble” called an “Ooho” that could hold water, and then a plastic alternative called “Notpla” made from seaweed.”

    That sounds world changing, old fashioned me drinks water out a 20/25 yr old chipped cup!!!!

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  8. ps – had a look at the website – https://www.notpla.com/about-us/

    they have a big team (40 odd?) so not a start up, but 1 million will be a nice bonus.

    wonder what other money Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez and Pierre Paslier have accrued for the business.

    “April 2017, we raised £850,000 (in three days!) on Crowdcube”
    “In December 2021, we closed a £10 million Series A financing round led by Horizons Ventures, with participation from existing investors Astanor Ventures, Lupa Systems and Torch Capital.”

    no problem with this, but do they really need another 1 million?

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  9. pps – wondered how they make seaweed into biodegrade plastic – the web site has pic of 1 machine!!!

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  10. “Prince William’s Earthshot prize won’t save the planet”

    https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/prince-williams-earthshot-prize-wont-save-the-planet/

    …Making food containers from seaweed rather than plastic – as one of this year’s five winners is doing – is all very worthy and will go down very well on an organic market in the Cotswolds, but help give us a stable climate by 2030? Another winner of the prize this year is making flat-packed greenhouses for Indian smallholders – a variation on what B&Q has been doing for decades but bringing the benefits of mass-produced horticultural equipment to developing countries. Another winning company manufactures stoves in Kenya which burn a cleanish mixture of charcoal, wood and sugar cane rather than fossil fuels, claiming to reduce pollution in huts by up to 90 per cent. Again, very helpful to poor Kenyans, though not really much of an answer as to how you enable the industrialisation of low-income countries without increasing carbon emissions…

    …The fourth winner is a group of indigenous Australian women who are ‘empowering each other to protect critical eco-systems’, trying to counter the statistic that ‘only 20 per cent of indigenous rangers are women’. All very inclusive and diverse – though it does have a slight whiff of an infamous, and now defunct, UK aid project which proposed to put together Kenya’s meteorological office with native ‘rain-makers’ in the hope that they could come up with a ‘consensus weather forecast’….

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  11. Thanks for this Jit, especially highlighting the solid fuel -> deadly respiratory problems issue. Well behind in my Cliscep reading but this has to have the tyres kicked and the MSM is unlikely to get near that.

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  12. Frankly I am very much surprised by the overwhelming negative attitude of Clisceppers to the Earthshot exercise. No I wouldn’t have chosen some of the proposals -seemingly there were better ones that didn’t make the grade. Yes the programme presenting the winners was hype at its worst. No, the outcomes of the successful contenders will probably not be earth-shattering, but then the money committed is relatively small beer. But two IMHO are possibly significant – the African stoves and the Indian greenhouses.

    I recognise that I probably constitute a minority of one so don’t waste your efforts trying to convince me that I am wrong. I just needed to tell you of my surprise.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the prize and the quality of its winners if they hadn’t deliberately named it “Earthshot” to equate it in significance to the much abused term “moonshot”? The magnitude of the alleged threat being, um, existential, the prize recipients hardly seem a worthy match. If it was just the “Making crap stuff a bit better” prize I would have cheered. (No, I wouldn’t. I’m far too cynical.)

    Sorry, Alan, I know you didn’t want an explanation – I’m hearting your comment in compensation for my impertinence.

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  14. Here is the steering committee of Queensland Indigenous Women’s Ranger Network, which, under the title ‘Indigenous Women of the Great Barrier Reef’, won the Earthshot prize called ‘Revive Our Oceans’:

    https://qiwrn.com.au/the-network/steering-committee/

    Three Australians and a Kiwi. Two of the Australians have blue eyes.

    Anyway… Enough racism. What are they doing for Our Oceans?

    Not a lot, as far as I can tell. QIWRN puts a lot of emphasis on the power of Indigenous Knowledge but in its pitch for the Earthshot prize it said that it wanted to use culturally appropriate training to teach indigenous Australian women how to use their mobile phones to collect data about oceans by… Dunno. Taking photos?

    A million will go a long way if that is all they are doing to Revive Our Oceans.

    ===
    PS: Here’s Australia’s Minister for Climate Change & Energy’s response to QIWRN’s prize:

    https://minister.dcceew.gov.au/node/2442

    The winning program combines 65,000 years of Indigenous knowledge with digital technologies such as drones to monitor coral changes and bushfires to protect precious land and sea country.

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  15. Alan, this paragraph greatly outweighs for me any desire for politeness about the prizes:

    To Africans: demand that your leaders give you what we in the West have. That means a reliable electricity grid providing cheap electricity. If the only way that can come about is by coal-powered generators, than that is what it must be. Do not allow our future king to shrink the ambitions you have for your people.

    Enough is enough.

    Like

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