Marjan Minnesma has devoted decades of her life to sustainability efforts. She was campaign director for Greenpeace Netherlands and spent years in academia alongside climate scientists. She founded an NGO called Urgenda, which organized a collective-buying initiative for solar panels—the first in Europe, per the foundation—helping to bring the price of panels down, and also helped spur electric vehicle purchases in the Netherlands.
Those projects are notable alone, but around 2012, she realized they wouldn’t be enough in the face of rapidly worsening climate change. Previously, Minnesma had avoided going through governmental channels, which were slow and cumbersome, but she realized, “We’re never going to make it if the government doesn’t change and help us change quickly,” she says. At the end of that year, Urgenda launched a historic lawsuit, suing the Dutch government for failing to protect its citizens from climate change, and asking the court to order the government to reduce emissions between 25% and 40% by the end of 2020, compared to levels in 1990.
Urgenda won. And when the government appealed, the foundation won again in 2018; and when the government appealed again, the case was brought to the Netherlands Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling; and, at the end of 2019, ordered the government to reduce emissions by at least 25%. “It’s an enormous relief when after so many years, it’s finally a done deal, and the government really has to do what it has promised to do,” she says. “We didn’t ask anything strange; we simply said, you have signed [documents pledging emissions reductions]. Now you should simply act.”
The court win reverberated around the world, and that work has made Minnesma a winner of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize. The annual award recognizes grassroots environmental activists from each of the world’s six geographic regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. Minnesma’s win marks the first Goldman honor for the Netherlands.
The Netherlands hit that 25% reduction goal in 2020, but just barely—the pandemic and a warm winter that meant people didn’t use as much gas to heat their homes helped. Emissions started bouncing back in 2021, and Urgenda is now demanding the government reduce emissions by 25%, minus the amount they went over last year (“Which I could also demand through the court,” she says, “but I’d rather have them doing it without me going to court, and they are totally on track for that”).
The Supreme Court ruling didn’t mark the end of Minnesma’s work. “The fact that you win such a court case also gives you the opportunity to speak regularly to the people in power, and then you bring ideas forward that sometimes they don’t have themselves,” she says. Using that leverage, she recently brought a plan she dubs “Woman on the Moon” to the Dutch prime minister, laying out a roadmap for making hydrogen via windmills at sea, and using that hydrogen to make fertilizer (instead of gas) and steel (instead of coal). The government’s approach overall has changed; at the end of 2021, the new government coalition said it aims to spend an extra $40 billion (35 billion euros) in the next decade to fight climate change.
Winning the Goldman Environmental Prize is recognized as one of the most prestigious environmental honors, and the award has even been dubbed the “Green Nobel.” Minnesma won alongside six other environmentalists. From Ecuador, Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez won together for spearheading an Indigenous movement to protect ancestral lands from gold mining. When doing forest patrols, they discovered heavy excavating machinery, and learned that the government issued mining concessions on their territory. In 2018, they led a lawsuit against the government for violating their rights and illegally granting gold mining concessions; and that year, the court canceled 52 mining concessions.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Nalleli Cobo was affected by an oil well near her home—getting headaches, nosebleeds, and heart palpitations from the pollution. She began speaking out against oil extraction at 9 years old, and cofounded coalitions against environmental racism. In 2020, after years of organizing, the drilling site across from her childhood home was closed; and executives for its operator, AllenCo Energy, face criminal charges for safety violations. The Los Angeles City Council banned new oil wells and promised to phase out current ones in 2022.
From Thailand, Niwat Roykaew, advocated against a blasting project on the Upper Mekong River that would make way for Chinese cargo ships. That river provides drinking water, irrigation, and food for more than 65 million people, and the project would have destroyed 248 miles of it—together with the fisheries, wetlands, and floodplains along it. Roykaew, who founded a conservation group in 1995, organized against the project with media appearances, boat demonstrations, and conversations with local communities and NGOs, ultimately meeting with the developers. In 2020, the Thai government announced it was canceling the project explicitly because of the environmental destruction it would cause.
When Chima Williams, an environmental lawyer from Nigeria, learned of two devastating oil spills in his country, he knew it would be difficult to hold the oil companies accountable. But he helped the victims sue anyway, partnering with Friends of the Earth Netherlands. His legal team ultimately found documents showing that the company knew the pipeline needed replacement—and that executives had lied in court—and in 2021, the Court of Appeal of the Hague ruled that Royal Dutch Shell was responsible for the spills, and had an obligation to prevent them.
Phasing out coal is key to cutting carbon emissions, yet Australia is still among the top countries for coal exports. That industry relies on lending from mainly four big banks, and Julien Vincent, a decade’s-long environmental campaigner from Australia, founded Market Forces to focus on the banks and funds that finance fossil fuels. Thanks to his activism—including discussions with bank executives and “divestment days” in which bank customers would all close their accounts—Vincent brought attention to the issue. Ultimately, those four banks, Commonwealth, Westpac, ANZ, and NAB, pledged to end coal investments by 2030.
To Minnesma, the Goldman prize “shows you how many people around the world are working on solutions,” she says. She hopes the winners inspire other people to get started on climate action, “because together,” she adds, “we can still make it.”