To coincide with The Earthshot Prize Awards, Alumni Voices caught up with York alum and Director of the Earthshot Prize & Portfolio, Chris Large, about why the time is now for positive environmental innovation and change.
Do you have any memories from York that you could share with us?
“I still have lots of lots of good friends from my time at York. I think it’s a great place to go to uni where you’ve got that out of town campus, plus such a beautiful town to go into.
I was in Langwith College, B block. I spent my first year living in Halifax Court and then I moved out of campus in second year and then back on to campus in third year.
Coming from a small town in Derbyshire, it was a really nice step to living in a city and I enjoyed spending time getting to know the city as well as getting involved in things like college footy. And just making new friends. My degree was Biology so I spent a lot of time thinking about the environment.”
How did your degree from York prepare you for your current role at The Earthshot Prize?
“York’s Biology degree was very broad and gave me an appreciation of how you could use Biology in the real world. I was keen to be out there trying to change how the world treats the environment to improve sustainability. I was much keener to do that than go down a lab or research based career.
“I think having been taught by real deep experts at York, it gives me the comfort to know that when we need to get a solution assessed to potentially become a finalist.”
I think it’s especially valuable to what I’m doing right now that I had a very broad education at York – the breadth of subjects doing everything from plant biology, animal behavior, genetic evolution, biochemistry. All of those subjects are really helpful when I’m working on a project that is trying to address biodiversity, climate change, waste, air quality and ocean health. We see solutions of all types from all around the world. Sometimes really tech heavy, sometimes policy based, and having that real grounded understanding of the broad biology and ecosystems of the world was incredibly helpful.
I think what that broad Biology degree also did for me was give me an appreciation of a wide variety of issues in the world of environment. It also gave me an appreciation of the scientific method that can help to develop a concept from being an idea to something that makes a major difference in the world.
I think York also gave me a real appreciation of deep expertise and, crucially, acknowledging when I don’t have the necessary knowledge to make judgements. I’m not an expert in many things and I think having been taught by real deep experts at York, it gives me the comfort to know that when we need to get a solution assessed to potentially become a finalist, there is an academic in the world who will understand that area so we can reach out to them and bring them in. As a layperson, I really shouldn’t try and understand that solution to the depth that an expert will understand it in the space of five minutes. It gives me that appreciation of when to be humble and say, ‘I don’t know this subject. I need an expert to come in and tell us whether this thing has real merit or not .’”
How did you get into the environmental sector?
“I left university not entirely knowing what I wanted to do. I moved to London, got a private sector consultancy job and bumbled around for a few years. In my early twenties I had the epiphany that I was just shuffling money around from one enterprise owned by wealthy individuals to another enterprise owned by wealthy individuals and thought, ‘The next forty years of my working life can’t be about this.’ So I decided to re-explore what I was really passionate about.
That company I worked for was very generous and allowed me voluntary time working for environmental NGOs to gain experience in that sector. Then I made the transition to working for an environmental NGO called ‘Global Action Plan’ – where I spent the next 16 years, from the age of 25 until my early 40s. We worked on engagement for environmental issues. How do we get society – people, big business, governmental organizations, and other NGOs – to work together and solve our environmental challenges? I really got my environmental education there in terms of how to turn science into action. I had a range of jobs and ended up being the Co-CEO, so had some experience of the ups and downs of supporting an NGO to grow. . I wasn’t really looking to move but after 16 years I came to a natural moment where moving might be good for everyone, with fresh blood and a new different perspective for GAP, and The Earthshot Prize opportunity was too enticing to resist and so I moved across in March 2021.
The first task for me at The Earthshot Prize was setting up the corporate partnerships, before then moving on to establishing our Fellowship Programme that supports the finalists to grow their solutions by helping them make connections and find funding. Then I moved again earlier this year to become the Director of Prize & Portfolio, which means I head up the search function and the selection process; how we identify and how we select solutions to win the prize.
It’s rewarding and inspiring in equal measure. I think the idea that you might be doing anything to help these incredible innovators to grow their solutions even faster than they are already doing provides real satisfaction and a sense of purpose. It’s inspiring because they’re all incredible – the 15 finalists every year come from around the world, a range of backgrounds and education themselves; solutions could be digital, tech based solutions or could be great mechanisms for engaging local communities to protect wildlife better. It’s so inspiring just to spend time with them.”
As the Director of Prize and Portfolio for The Earthshot Prize, can you share with us the vision and mission behind this groundbreaking initiative?
“The whole purpose of The Earthshot Prize is to inspire urgent action and optimism and we do that by discovering, awarding, showcasing, accelerating and scaling solutions that have got the potential to regenerate the planet. The prize is trying to find thousands of solutions that could make a genuine difference. We highlight 15 every year through the prize showcase; 15 finalists and 5 become winners. Winners get a million pounds as a grant but, even beyond that, what we are trying to do is find ways to catalyze the innovation to grow – irrespective of whether they win the prize or not. Every innovation needs; access to funding; partners; if it’s a for-profit, it needs its customer base to grow; or technical assistance.
Just being part of a community is also helpful because being an environmental innovator is not easy. It’s quite often lonely, as well as hard, when people set up a new entity from scratch but have very few colleagues. Sometimes it’s just about bringing a community together that can support each other through the highs and lows of developing an environmental innovation.
We are an NGO and were incubated by The Royal Foundation of the Prince and Princess of Wales. We spun out of The Royal Foundation last summer in 2022 to become our own independent UK charity. We rely on philanthropy for our funding to both run all of our work and put on the grand ceremony every year, a TV show and the prize money. All of that is funded through philanthropic roots – we have about 18 different philanthropic funders. We’re incredibly grateful to everyone who has helped the grow this wonderful initiative over the last three years.”
What inspired the creation of The Earthshot Prize?
“The origin story begins with Prince William visiting a wildlife program in Africa in the late 2010s. He identified that this individual solution was incredible and asked the question, ‘Why isn’t this 10 or 100 times bigger, and why isn’t it replicated around the world?’ He set The Royal Foundation that mission of answering that question, and working out how they could contribute to scaling and replicating great environmental innovations around the world.
The Earthshot Prize was born from the answer to this question – that we needed optimism and a focus on solutions rather than despondency, and urgency to act rapidly which could be partly achieved by drawing attention to the attractive and wonderful new emerging solutions
“Urgency + optimism = action.”
The Royal Foundation typically has three or four initiatives on the go, where it’s looking at a particular challenge in society that the foundation thinks it can make some contribution towards. Typically the solution is developed and incubated for a few years until it’s okay to stand on its own two feet then it spins out and they think of the next idea – The Earthshot Prize was one of those ideas to successfully spin out after a lot of clever thought and hard work by the Foundation.”
Can you provide an overview of the categories the enterprise focuses on and why these are areas that were chosen?
“There are five categories; protect and restore nature; clean our air; revive our oceans; build a waste free world and fix our climate. They were chosen through a lot of research at the incubation stage and they were deliberately described in that positive way to set ourselves a goal,
Urgency and optimism are our two mantras – and if we create urgency and we inspire optimism, we think we’ve got a greater chance of leading to action. You’ll quite often see in our communications that urgency + optimism = action.
Much like the Moonshot in the US in the 1960s – the JFK speech and their ambition to get a person on the moon by the end of the decade – the Earthshot language takes inspiration from this.
The Earthshot ambitions are about trying to solve these five goals. So it’s ‘let’s fix our climate by the end of the decade’ rather than ‘do something about climate change.’
It is really easy in the environmental world to get down. There’s a lot of things that are not going the way we would want it to go so it is very refreshing and Invigorating to work in a place where our sole focus is on solutions and find ways to accelerate them.”
How do you envision The Earthshot Prize inspiring and accelerating solutions for a sustainable future?
“We help any individual solution to grow through helping them access funding and partnership opportunities.
The other side of it is the big show that we put on. Every year there’s an award ceremony. In the first year we had Coldplay and Ed Sheeren performing and last year we had Annie Lennox and Billie Eilish. The prizes are given out by luminaries from entertainment and sports. What we’re really trying to do is put environmental solutions in the same spotlight and give them the same plaudits that you see given out in the Oscars or in any award system that becomes a household name – that’s the ambition and they deserve to be stars.
I think our team does an incredible job to get people inspired and excited about these environmental solutions. We see good technical metrics on our reach and ‘brand recognition’ and I also like the occasional interaction with a person who says, ‘Oh, I really remember that coral solution or that indigenous group in Australia that you’ve supported. How are they doing? How’s it all going for them?’ So we feel like we’re getting some cut through in making these solutions to be much better known. That does two things; it helps with individual solutions and it also gives us this collective sense of optimism that we’re not we’re not doomed, everything’s not lost, solutions are out there – we can make progress. Once we’ve got that mindset, the mind turns more towards: how do we do it? Rather than: is it possible?”
How does The Earthshot Prize evaluate and select its winners? Can you walk us through the process and criteria used in the selection?
“The first job is to find thousands of solutions around the world that are representative of the global community that we live in. Within each of those five categories, we are looking for solutions that are for-profit, not-for-profit, public sector led; that come from every continent and every region. Solutions that could be a technical product, a policy, a coalition of organisations or a service. We’re really agnostic about what type of solution it is, so long as it works. It’s got to be already proven to have impact in at least one place in the world. We’re interested to hear about drawing board solutions because they may develop and go on to be something that could win a prize in the future, but to actually win the prize now they need to show that they are already getting significant progress and results in their chosen work in the field, not just in a laboratory. The search process relies on 350 nominators that are based around the world who send thousands of innovations our way.
We then have a process that picks out the leading candidates by a set of criteria. A long list is reviewed by an independent expert advisory panel which includes scientists from around the world. Those scientists help us to assess the potential impact these solutions could have as they understand the problems in that sector and if an innovation has a chance of flourishing compared to other things in the sector.
Alongside that we look at their technical scale plans, their leadership team, their traction achieved to date and their understanding of their growth plan. Do they understand all the barriers they’re facing? The better they understand the barriers the higher likelihood they will go on to scale. It’s a technical assessment to work out if solutions are ready and able to grow, unique and potentially transformative to their sector.
Once we have chosen the 15 finalists, the final step is the Prize Council, where Sir David Attenborough, Cate Blanchett, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (the Director General of the World Trade Organization), Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, Christiana Figueres, Stella McCartney, the Prince of Wales and other luminaries select the winners.
We work out which solutions stand out as such incredible innovations that the prize money would really accelerate their growth very rapidly and could immediately start to have an impact. We’re thinking on a decade timeline so there’s not actually very long to turn innovation into global impact so the question of how rapidly the solutions can speed to scale is a very live question.”
Discover the stories behind the 2023 Earthshot finalists:
The Earthshot Prize aims to achieve five Earthshots by 2030. Can you tell us about these goals and the significance of the 2030 timeline?
“I think the significance of the timeline is set for us by the outside world. We are not on track as a global society to limit the impact of climate change and reverse our damage to the natural world. So really this decade is when the change needs to happen.
If we don’t start to peak the use of fossil fuels, if we don’t reverse the trend in deforestation and start to actually restore land in this decade, then the risk is climate change gets away from us and runs away with itself and then the consequences for humanity and nature will be devastating. The urgency is put upon us by the situation we face.”
The alternative is also more attractive. We can have a future that is more equitable, with better jobs, better standards of living, better health and protection of the ecosystems that sustain all human life. This option is entirely affordable and entirely plausible – a better future, without sacrifice, if society makes the right choices over the next decade.”
How do you see The Earthshot Prize evolving and growing in the coming years and what impact do you hope it will have on the global environmental agenda?
“It’s going to take more than three finalists every year in each of those categories if we are to achieve those grand Earthshot ambitions. By the end of the decade we’ll have supported 30 finalist solutions in each of those Earthshot areas. The task is so enormous, that no matter how incredible those solutions, 30 is just not a number that can achieve those grand ambitions. What we’re trying to do now is create a portfolio of hundreds of solutions that we can follow over time, and turn our understanding into support and acceleration for those innovations. So as well as helping three solutions in the clean air category, like we currently do every year – maybe we can help 30 every year, or 50 or 150 by raising their profile, introducing them to potential investors or partners, connecting them to each other and developing their solutions faster together.
“The urgency is put upon us by the situation we face.”
We think of ourselves as a platform rather than a prize scheme. The Earthshot Prize as an initiative will be successful when people who are not working for The Earthshot Prize feel ownership over that initiative. For example, our partners are beginning to run showcase events to celebrate the work of some of the finalists without our direct support – , they just get on and do it. There’s only a team of 45 of us in the charity so we really want others to feel ownership over this initiative and help to generate that urgent optimism. Success will come through wide collaboration, trust and openness”
Finally, what message would you like to convey to individuals, organisations and governments who are looking to make a positive impact on the environment and contribute to the goals of The Earthshot Prize?
“Individually there is something that absolutely everybody can do for the environment. But it’s not ‘every little helps.’ There’s a great quote by David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change in the 2010s, ‘If everyone does a little, we’ll only achieve a little.’ If everyone across the world improves their carbon footprint by 1%, we make 1% progress. There is something that everyone can do but I would recommend not fixating on the small changes, like turning the tap off when you’re brushing your teeth. Really think about the big ways that you could influence your impact on the environment as an individual. That’s things like how you choose to travel around; where you choose to travel to; what your diet is (particularly how much red meat you eat); where your money is – if you’re fortunate enough to have money in a bank anywhere, what that bank is doing with your money is really important. Then there’s those that you can influence around you; how your employer operates – is there something your employer could do to reduce their impact on the environment? Get really excited about what you can do collectively with people in your community, with people in your place of work – even more than what you can do as an individual just in changing your personal habits as when we come together we can have a much bigger impact.
“I think the biggest failure is not trying in the first place because then nothing can happen if we don’t try.”
For policymakers, large corporations and universities, I’d say there is no end of innovation out there. I don’t think we have an innovation problem; I think we have an adoption problem. For City Council’s there are so many ideas out there of how you could help your city be powered in a more sustainable way – people could travel, eat and enjoy that city in a more sustainable way. The solutions are out there so I would go and look at what solutions are there and see who you can work with. Major businesses I would encourage them to recognise the power and capability at their fingertips.
Even though we’re in a climate and nature crisis and all of business depends on a stable climate and the thriving natural world, I still hear businesses far too often saying to innovators, ‘Great idea. I could really see it working but I can only do it when it’s cost neutral.’ That just doesn’t feel like leadership. That’s waiting for someone else to solve the problem and then you might get on the bandwagon later. Real leadership is finding a way for the new innovation to become economically viable alongside the innovators. Innovations rarely become 10 times cheaper overnight – that can happen long term and major businesses must help the start-ups get there.
You can certainly look for inspiration from our innovators; we do need innovators and trailblazers. There will be some people out there who might be thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll give it a go. Maybe I won’t.’ I’d say, ‘Give it a go.’ Whether it’s a new career path or whether it’s trying to do something expansive in your local community, things like local hydro schemes. If they don’t come off the first time, then you learn something and you can try again. I think the biggest failure is not trying in the first place because then nothing can happen if we don’t try. Our finalists might inspire people on that front.
I would give it all a go, work with others and try the really ambitious solution.”