Janine Benyus, Suzlon and RecycleBank Execs Honored as U.N. 'Champions'

Janine Benyus, Suzlon and RecycleBank Execs Honored as U.N. 'Champions'

Policymakers, industry leaders, visionaries and an environmental non-profit organization have been dubbed 2009's "Champions of the Earth," in a ceremony held in Paris on Earth Day.

The winners of the seven awards, which are hosted alongside the Business for the Environment Summit span the globe, from Norway to India, Papua New Guinea to France, and Ethiopia to the United States. The awards were launched in 2004 to recognize innovative and dedicated efforts to create environmental change from around the globe.

"Passion, creativity, intellect, vision and drive unites each of our 2009 winners -- key qualities urgently needed with less than 230 days to go to the crucial U.N. climate convention meeting in December," said Achim Steiner, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. "[These qualities are also essential to turn the current and coming crises into an opportunity to realize a sustainable, Green Economy for the 21st century."

For the first time, the awards moved away from a geographic focus to center on five categories: policy leadership, science and innovation, entrepreneurial vision, inspiration and action, and next-generation champions.

Janine Benyus, the president of the Biomimicry Institute -- a regular topic on our websites -- was the winner of the science and innovation award for her work on developing biologically based design principles, businesses and jobs.

"This award is a great honor for all those who are shaping the emerging field of biomimicry, innovation inspired by nature," Benyus said in a statement. "A sustainable world already exists, in the prairies, forests, tundras, and coral reefs of our planet. The search for solutions to problems like climate change should start here, emulating life-enhancing technologies that have been field tested for 3.8 billion years.

The UNEP handed out two awards each for entrepreneurial vision and policy leadership. The two entrepreneurs honored were Tulsi Tanti, the chairman and managing director of Suzlon Energy, the fifth largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world and the largest in Asia; and Ron Gonen, the CEO and co-founder of RecycleBank, an innovative company that promotes and incentivizes recycling programs across the U.S.

Gonen, whose company has helped increase recycling rates to over 90 percent in cities and towns across 18 U.S. states, said in response to receiving the award, "For me, this award is recognition that if you are willing to work hard enough, if you are willing to never give up, that what starts as an idea may one day be recognized as a global movement."

On the policy front, two awards were handed out, one to Erik Solheim, Norway's Minister of Environment and Minister of Development, and the other to Kevin Conrad, the Executive Director of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations.

Solheim was honored for his career-long work on environmental initiatives, ranging from Norway's early implementation of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and helping to found the UNEP's Climate Neutral Network.

Conrad earned the award for his work on promoting better management for tropical forests through financial and market incentives so that forestry services can give back to communities.

"Beginning today, we are obligated to catalyze a new 'Environmental Age' to safeguard our future," Conrad said. "Valuing the ecosystem services of tropical rainforests is a necessary first step. To take root, however, we will require more hard-headed economics and less soft-headed tree-hugging!"

The final two awards -- Inspiration and Action, and Next-Generation Champions -- went to photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand and the Ethiopian NGO Tena Kebena, respectively. Arthus-Bertrand is the photographer behind the "Earth Seen from Above" series of photographs, as well as the founder of GoodPlanet.org.

Tena Kebena is an Addis Ababa-based nonprofit that employs about 80 young people, many of whom have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia, to rehabilitate garbage dumps around the city and reforesting them, as well as planting crops and gardens on the land.

"The Champions of the Earth award is opening the door to us for everything. With this award, we can grow and go further," said Tigist Tsegaye, a member of Tena Kebena. "This is a big thing for all the youth in the world, especially in Africa, and it is a very good opportunity for the next generation."

A photo of all the winners is below; for full bios and details about the awards and the winners, visit www.UNEP.org/champions. The seven winners of the Champions of the Earth awards. Click for a full-sized image. Champions