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Prince William’s Earthshot finalists deliver powerful messages at COP26: ‘We won’t wait’

Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, stands with Earthshot Prize finalist Vinisha Umashankar in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2. (Jeff J Mitchell/Pool/Reuters)
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GLASGOW, Scotland — One of the most powerful speeches to be given so far at the landmark climate summit in Glasgow — and there have been many — was arguably not one by a prime minister or president or even a prince: It was by a teen student innovator from India.

Vinisha Umashankar, 15, the youngest finalist of Prince William’s Earthshot Prize, issued a powerful rallying cry to world leaders, urging them to “stop talking and start doing.”

She has invented a solar-powered ironing cart that helps reduce pollution by replacing charcoal clothes irons used by millions of street vendors in India.

“I’m not just a girl from India. I’m a girl from Earth,” she said on Tuesday at the United Nations climate summit known as COP26, in front of an audience that included Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Biden. “I’m also a student, innovator, environmentalist and entrepreneur but most importantly, an optimist.”

“I invite you to stand with us. And we hope that you will give up the old ways of thinking and the old habits. But let me be clear, when we invite you to join us, we will lead, even if you don’t. We will act, even if you delay," she said.

She received a standing ovation.

Vinisha Umashankar, a 15-year-old climate innovator, on Nov. 2 in Glasgow, Scotland called on world leaders to take actions against climate change. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

“Feeling optimistic as I head home from #COP26 having met our @EarthshotPrize Winners & Finalists and discussed their solutions to repair our planet,” William later tweeted. “Especially proud to see Vinisha speaking in front of the world, demanding change so that her generation can have a better future.” The British royal’s Earthshot Prize aims to find creative solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

William introduced her and all of the Earthshot finalists during the world leaders’ summit event “Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment.”

They were, he said, “the real superstars in the room.”

Then he made a pitch: “I hope our finalists have given you cause for optimism. . . . Today, I’m asking you to create the conditions in which they can thrive, and their ideas can scale.”

William spent two days in Glasgow, using his profile to highlight the winners and finalists of his Earthshot Prize.

Last month, at an Oscars-like ceremony in London, which included a “green carpet,” five winners were selected from a pool of 15 finalists. The winners each received 1 million pounds and support to scale up their innovations to help repair the planet.

During the U.N. summit, the finalists met with several members of the Earthshot Global Alliance, a network of philanthropists, nonprofit groups and global companies. Former New York mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg, one of the alliance’s “founding partners,” hosted a networking event. William also met with another founding partner, billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.

Some of the finalists brought their eye-catching innovations with them to Glasgow to showcase to world leaders and business executives.

Olugbenga Olubanjo, 28, the founder of the Nigerian start-up Reeddi, brought his solar-powered energy capsule, a lithium battery that his company rents for 50 cents a day. The capsules are used to power devices as varied as laptops, fans and phones by people who don’t have reliable electricity.

In interviews on Tuesday with The Washington Post, the finalists said they were meeting policymakers and industry experts who they hoped could help them to turbocharge their start-ups and extend their reach.

“People keep asking me, ‘Who do you want to meet, who do you want to talk to, how can I help you?’ ” Olubanjo said. He met Nigeria’s environment minister and many others. “Just introductions, but these are the bedrocks of relationships.”

Eshrat Waris, 34, is director for product and business development at SOLshare, a Bangladesh-based company. She brought SOLshare’s smart meter to the climate summit to demonstrate how the technology allows people to sell excess energy produced by the sun. “Other meters show how much energy you are using. Ours also shows how much money are you making,” she said.

She described her time at COP26 as “an out-of-body experience.”

“Someone taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Oh, Bill Gates wants to see your product.’ ” Another highlight was meeting at a dinner Britain’s Prince Charles, who has long focused on environmental causes. “I was blown away by how direct his questions were. He is asking, ‘What is it you need?’ and I said, ‘Financing and tariff reform,’ and he walks off.” And next thing she knew, she was talking to an executive from Bank of America.

Vaitea Cowan, a 27-year-old co-founder of Enapter, a company with offices in Thailand, Italy and Germany, agreed that winning the Earthshot Prize was “giving us a fast track into scaling up, and that’s what we need.”

The Pacific Islander said that her origins were a big part of why she’s working in green technology. “The Pacific islands are at such a higher risk from climate change and global warming and sea-level rise. If there’s anything I can do, I am going to do it.”

Her company has made the “AEM Electrolyser,” which produces green hydrogen technology that is already being used in hydrogen trial planes and cars in Britain. She said what made Enapter’s innovation radical was that it was compact and scalable.

“We compare our technology to the PC in the IT industry that disrupted the mainframes,” she said at the end of a long day talking to so many leaders and dignitaries that her voice was almost gone. She said most electrolyzer manufacturers today “are building systems similar to the IT industry’s early mainframes,” which were the size of large cabinets and could fill a room. But Enapter’s electrolyzer, she said, was a “compact” and a “standardized, modular, stackable system, and that’s much better because if one unit isn’t working, then you just remove that. You don’t have to shut down the whole mainframe.”

That compactness stood out for Boris Johnson, too.

As he opened a meeting on Tuesday, the British prime minister pointed over at Cowan’s electrolyzer sitting atop a table.

“There’s a machine over there . . . that looks suspiciously like a microwave, that apparently can make very cheap hydrogen,” he said. “Isn’t that fantastic? I believe it. I’m a taker. She gave me her card. This could be the future.”

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