The key to saving our planet quickly is investing in future visionaries

The Zayed Sustainability Prize rewards the efforts of those working on solutions to the climate crisis

Icebergs, some bigger than the size of houses sit frozen on the Fjallsarlon glacier lake at the south end of the Vatnajokull ice cap in Iceland, on March 7. PA Wire

For millennia, the formidable ancient glaciers of the Arctic, with their expansive beauty, have stood unquestioned. Today, they are disappearing.

Year after year, I have watched the massive Vatnajokull glacier – Iceland’s largest – shrink. Almost all of Iceland's glaciers are receding, and scientists predict that they may vanish altogether in the next 100-200 years.

This ice melt does not affect only Iceland; it affects the entire world. The Arctic helps to regulate the world’s temperature, so as more ice melts, the warmer the world becomes. It is the melting of the glaciers that causes the cold winters in Texas, and the increased unpredictability of the monsoons in India. It is the melting ice that is causing sea levels to rise. Some experts estimate that the oceans will rise as much as 23 feet by 2100, which would devastate coastal cities.

While the Arctic may be the harbinger of human-caused climate change, it is also the place to look for the greatest inspiration for tackling the climate crisis.

A combination picture shows satellite images of the Spalte glacier disintegration between 2013 and 2020. EU Copernicus and GEUS/Handout via REUTERS NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT

In Iceland, we shifted from being 80 per cent dependent on oil and coal in the 1970s, to being 100 per cent dependent on clean geothermal energy. In just 40 years we proved that a total energy transformation can be achieved and that cities can be liveable with clean energy. We have seen the impact of this investment on both our environment and our economy. The transition to low-carbon energy has prevented millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, and has helped significantly grow our economy.

That is why I believe that the theme of this year’s Earth Day (on April 22) – "Invest in Our Planet" – is particularly apt. Investing in renewable energy and in sustainable solutions designed to preserve air, land and water resources will not only save lives and the planet’s biodiversity, but also support business and economic growth. Creating new technologies, building greener buildings and businesses, and using less energy to do this will make almost all companies and nations more profitable.

Chunks of ice from the Fjallsjokull glacier, seen behind, in a process called calving float, on Fjallsarlon lake, August 14, 2021 near Hof, Iceland. Getty

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate impacts stresses the need to ramp up this investment. While the report did paint a grim picture of the perils that face our world, it also offered us a way forward and emphasised that every fraction of a degree of warming we can stop is worth fighting for.

So we must keep fighting, and we must keep investing. Every dollar invested to protect nature yields a five-fold return. Investment in sustainable development is the only way to put an end to this ongoing climate saga.

Every dollar invested to protect nature yields a five-fold return

Unfortunately, we learned after the Cop15 climate talks held in Paris, that diplomacy and policy would be slow vehicles to bring about the fundamental change critically needed. Thus, the only hope to achieve transformative, rapid change is by investing in new clean technologies and in the ideas and projects of the visionary people creating innovative solutions that are not only scientifically sound, but also practical. It is these sustainability visionaries who are making the transformative change.

The Zayed Sustainability Prize, of which I am honoured to serve as the Jury Chair, is an organisation that is committed to investing in those pioneers who are developing sustainable solutions aimed at preserving the future.

The prize, which is now accepting submissions, is a global programme that recognises and rewards the achievements of small and medium-sized enterprises, non-profit organisations and high schools, who are driving innovative, impactful and inspiring sustainability solutions across various areas.

The prize’s $3 million fund is divided equally amongst the five categories of Health, Food, Energy, Water and Global High Schools, with each organisational winner receiving $600,000 and six high schools, one from each the Americas, Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia, and East Asia and Pacific, receiving up to $100,000 to implement their student-led sustainability project proposal.

The Zayed Sustainability Prize invests in the efforts of change-makers who are innovating and deploying the critically needed solutions to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Through programmes like the Zayed Sustainability Prize, we realise that there is still much hope for our future. There are a number of disruptive technologies waiting to be recognised and harnessed, being developed by young, determined innovators and entrepreneurs who are playing the most critical role in our fight against climate change.

Published: April 21, 2022, 4:00 AM
Olafur Ragnar Grimsson

Olafur Ragnar Grimsson

Olafur Ragnar Grimsson is the former president of Iceland and a judge for the Zayed Sustainability Prize