Who Knew? A Prize Takes Aim at an Obscure But Critical Environmental Challenge

The latest prize to solve a specific environmental problem is a $1 million pot to rein in the destruction of peatlands. How bad a problem can peat be? Oh man, so bad. 

As we’ve seen the rise of the grand challenge, high-dollar philanthropic competitions across many fields, certain funders have embraced this prize approach to find potential fixes to environmental problems.  

Related: The Perils of All These Prizes

Two of the biggest examples are Richard Branson’s $25 million challenge to remove carbon from the atmosphere (that one’s still chugging along nearly 10 years later), and Wendy Schmidt’s Ocean Health XPrize. 

But we’re also seeing the prize model being tapped to solve some more specific impediments that are lacking solutions, but have disproportionate negative impacts. The latest such initiative is funded by the Packard Foundation and offers a $1 million prize to take on the destruction of peatlands in Indonesia. 

The Indonesian Peat Prize is maybe the narrowest such challenge we’ve seen, but the environmental impact at stake is truly staggering. We’re talking just peat. Just Indonesia.

Peat is partially decayed plant material that’s accumulated for thousands of years, typically in a boggy form, soaked with water and not going anywhere. It’s also a massive carbon sink, actually a precursor to coal, and storing about a third of the world’s soil carbon. Release the carbon held by global peatlands, and it would be like burning all the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, Russia, and the U.S. combined. 

OK, so let’s just leave that goop alone. Who needs peat, right? I mean, except for maybe making fancy scotch. Well, the problem is that big agriculture companies, mainly palm oil producers, are wiping out this land, clearing it and burning it, or just draining it and making it a tinderbox. 

The resulting decomposition of just Indonesia’s peat is one of the biggest contributors of GHG emissions in the world. Greenpeace calls it a “virtual carbon bomb.” It’s sort of like burning a huge reserve of coal just to get it out of the way. Of course, the peat fires are also a massive public health problem, and disrupting important habitats.

Fortunately, the Indonesian president has been working with companies to crack down and stop this madness. Only there’s another problem—we don’t know exactly where or how deep the peat is in Indonesia. The current maps aren’t that great, and they don’t accurately measure thickness, which is crucial for preservation efforts. 

Enter the Peat Prize, which rewards the team that can come up with a credible and fast way to measure the country’s peatlands, so the government can get the situation under control. The competition recently announced 11 approved applicants from all over the world, and the winner will be announced in October 2017.

I’m generally skeptical about the premise that technological fixes can rescue us from environmental problems like climate change and ocean pollution, or that the competition model is the way to take on such systemic problems. The Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges yield clever tech, but have yet to make significant impacts in global health, for example. 

But the Peat Prize is something different, in that it’s a very specific need. It also has a channel for how the resulting tech is put to use, by partnering with the Indonesian government.

It’s not unlike a challenge we recently wrote about out of the Everglades, that seeks a better way to remove excess phosphorous pollution from freshwaters. This causes algae blooms all over the country, but right now it’s particularly bad in Florida. Even that’s a pretty unwieldy problem, but still a focused target.

Such prizes may be less exciting or “grand,” but could actually be a much better use of a philanthropic competition. Let's hope it works in Indonesia.

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