Narendra Modi receives UNEP Champion of the Earth award: A look at past laureates and their contributions


Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday received the United Nations’ highest environmental honour, the UNEP Champion of the Earth award, at a special ceremony at the Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra in Delhi.

Modi-championPrime Minister Modi has been selected in the leadership category for his pioneering work in championing the International Solar Alliance and for his unprecedented pledge to eliminate all single-use plastic in India by 2022,” a statement had said earlier.

The award, announced on 26 September on the sidelines of 73rd UN General Assembly in New York City, was presented by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Many leaders understand climate change but Prime Minister Narendra Modi acts on it. The example of prime minister’s leadership is not being followed enough.” the UN chief said.

The prime minister also addressed the gathering. “It is a great honour that this award is being given in India itself… It is an honour for all Indians. Indians are committed to save the environment,” Modi said. “This award is a result of India’s 1.25 billion strong population.”

Launched in 2005, the Champions of the Earth is conferred annually to “outstanding figures from the public and private sectors and from civil society whose actions have had a transformative, positive impact on the environment”. The award is granted under five categories: policy leadership, lifetime achievement, action and inspiration, entrepreneurial vision, and science and innovation.

Prime Minister Modi and French president Emmanuel Macron are this year’s recipients of the UN award under the policy leadership category. Indigenous rights defender Joan Carling was awarded in the lifetime achievement category, China’s Zhejiang province in the action and inspiration category, Kochi International Airport in the entrepreneurial vision category, and Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in the science and innovation category.

Since 2005, the UN’s highest environmental honour has recognised dozens of “exemplary individuals and organisations”, whose work has inspired critical action on behalf of the global environment. Past laureates include Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Rwandan president Paul Kagame, ocean explorer and conservationist Sylvia Earle, and the National Geographic Society, among several others.

Here is a list of winners from the past few year and a little bit about their contributions to fighting climate change:


Policy leadership: Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile, was recognised for her outstanding leadership in creating marine protected areas and boosting renewable energy.

Lifetime achievement: Wang Wenbiao, chairman of China’s largest private green industries enterprise, Elion Resources Group, won for his lifetime leadership work.

Action and inspiration: Jeff Orlowski, founder and director of Exposure Labs, was recognised for his work on spreading powerful environmental messages to a global audience. Exposure Labs uses the power of storytelling to create impact.

China’s Saihanba Afforestation Community also won in this category for transforming degraded land into a lush paradise.

Entrepreneurial vision: Mobike, a bicycle sharing startup, won in this category for exploring market-driven solutions to air pollution and climate change.

Science and innovation: Dr Paul A Newman and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center won for their contributions to the Montreal Protocol, under which 99 percent of ozone-depleting substances have been phased out.

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Policy leadership: Rwandan president Paul Kagame was given the accolade for the country’s efforts to combat illegal forestry, restore vital wetlands, protect the habitat of endangered gorillas and for becoming one of the first countries to ban the use of plastic bags.

Lifetime achievement: Mexican research biologist José Sarukhán Kermez earned the award after he persuaded the Mexican government to establish a permanent top-level commission on biodiversity.

Action and inspiration: Afroz Shah, a Mumbai-based lawyer who founded the world’s largest beach clean-up project, was awarded the title for his commitment to cleaning up Versova Beach.

Honduran indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres was also recognised for her efforts towards the rights of marginalised and poverty-stricken indigenous people.

Entrepreneurial vision: Masen, the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy, was awarded the prize for pioneering the first large-scale capture of solar energy in West Asia and North Africa, thus reducing the country’s dependence on high-carbon imports.

Science and innovation: New York-based Australian designer, social scientist and sustainability expert Leyla Acaroglu was given the award for instigating environmental and social change through innovation.


Policy leadership: Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina was given the award in recognition of Bangladesh’s far-reaching initiatives to address climate change.

Action and inspiration: The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit in South Africa was awarded the prize for their efforts to protect the endangered black rhino from poaching.

Entrepreneurial vision: Sustainable beauty brand Natura Brasil was recognised for prioritising recycled and recyclable materials in its packaging and fostering sustainable economy in the Amazon region.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman was also given the award in this category for championing equitable and sustainable business practices.

Science and innovation: UNEP lauded the National Geographic Society for using storytelling, science and exploration to change the environmental narrative and for funding thousands of research, conservation and education programmes around the globe.


Policy leadership: Former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was given the Champion of Earth title for his attention to environmental issues and for using environmental stewardship as a means to economic prosperity.

The President of the Republic of Palau, Tommy Remengesau Jr, was also given the award for his work to protect the country’s endangered biodiversity.

Lifetime achievement: Nobel Laureate Mario José Molina-Pasquel Henríquez was given the award for discovering the link between chlorofluorocarbon gases and the degradation of the Earth’s ozone layer in 1974.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle was also recognised in this category for her dedicated work towards ocean conservation, including leading the first team of women aquanauts and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000 metres.

Action and inspiration: Somalian environmental activist Fatima Jama Jibrell, who is also the founder of non-profit organisation Adeso, was recognised in this category for battling illegal trade of charcoal and promoting conservation across Africa.

Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup, was also given the award for his work developing technologies that make extracting plastic from the ocean easier.

Entrepreneurial vision: The US Green Building Council was recognised for its work towards sustainable building through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is currently the most widely used green building programme worldwide.

Science and innovation: Environmentalist Sir Robert Watson was awarded the prize for his career spent promoting the science behind ozone depletion, global warming and palaeoclimatology.


Policy leadership: The UNEP awarded the prize to Slovenia’s Janez Potočnik for his work advocating the need to develop more resource-efficient economies.

Brazilian minister Izabella Teixeira was also given the award in this category for her work to reduce the deforestation in the Amazon forest.

Action and inspiration: Mexican conservation advocate Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo was awarded the prize for achieving “Biosphere Reserve” status for the Sierra Gorda reserve through advocacy.

Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, was also recognised. Slow Food encourages and supports indigenous people to uphold their food traditions as the custodians of irreplaceable inherited knowledge, in particular through the Presidia projects and the Terra Madre network of food communities.

Entrepreneurial vision: American businessman Jack Dangermond was given the award for his work at the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a geographic information systems software company he founded with his wife Laura.

American software engineer Brian McClendon, who co-founded Keyhole, Inc., a geospatial data visualisation company that was instrumental to the creation of Google Earth, was also given the award.

Science and innovation: Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor at the University of California San Diego, was given the award for his work researching the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons and numerous other man-made trace gases.


Policy leadership: Former Mongolian president Tsakhia Elbegdorj was given the award in the for his commitment to bringing environmental issues into policy-making.

Grassroots initiative: In a new category, Maasai warrior Samson Parashina was given the award for his work developing sustainable green economy models for Kenya’s Kuku Group Ranch

Action and inspiration: Swiss scientist Dr Bertrand Piccard was recognised for his work as a world-renowned doctor and aeronaut. He was also one of the pioneers of hang-gliding and microlight aviation in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial vision: Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar City, a planned city project in Abu Dhabi, was given the award for his work developing and for deploying renewable energy and clean technology solutions.

Fábio C Barbosa, CEO of Latin American media enterprise Abril SA, was also given the award in this category for his work to integrate environmentally and socially conscious practices into his leadership.

Science and innovation: Dr Sander van der Leeuw was given the award for his extensive work studying human-environment relations.