The Queen’s commitment to tackling climate change is both endearing and sad

No recent Prime Minister has supported the forestry project. Only the Queen has thought it worth her time. 

“You said that [one] was Andrew?” says the Queen, pointing at a large oak tree in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. There’s a look of bafflement on her face, because her companion and fellow nonagenarian, Sir David Attenborough, has just pronounced that the plaque under a different tree is also dedicated to the same son. “They can’t both be,” she says, now mildly vexed.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Attenborough responds, bending right over and peering through his glasses to double check.

This endearingly natural exchange is part of the recent ITV documentary, The Queen’s Green Planet, during which Her Majesty and the veteran nature presenter amble around the royal gardens discussing trees, bees and diplomacy. “One wishes one had more things that bees like,” the Queen muses among the rose beds.

Their slow steps and almost-childlike enthusiasm for their surroundings lend them a quality reminiscent of Tolkien’s mystical Ents (tree-like creatures who acted as wardens of the forests of Middle-earth).

The similarity is especially appropriate considering the film’s concern with promoting “The Queens Commonwealth Canopy”, a scheme to encourage Commonwealth countries to protect and plant trees in the Queen’s honour.

Her Majesty has big ambitions for the scheme. “If countries continue to plant [more trees], it might change the climate again,” she remarks at the end of the film, in what is believed to be her first public acknowledgement of climate change’s threat to the planet.

Yet there is also a sad undertone to this light bit of primetime TV. The viewer is left with a gnawing suspicion that the Queen knows only too well that her power to change the environment is only symbolic – and in this case it is unlikely to be enough.

In a scene with the head of state for Fiji, we watch the Queen hesitate as she hands over a document confirming the country’s membership of the scheme. “This is your certificate to prove you’re going to do this,” she says, with a school-marmish tap of the paper. Yet such emphasis on the word “prove” only serves to underline the limits of her control. 

The new scheme may be overflowing with celebrity endorsement – Angelina Jolie makes a flying appearance as an ambassador for a new tree “nursery” in Namibia – but with no real means of enforcement the project risks becoming dead wood. 

This matters because, when Britain leaves the EU, it will also leave behind important tools of environmental justice. Just this week, the EU’s top court ruled that deforestation of Poland’s Bialowieza Forest violates EU law and must be speedily halted by the Polish government. Failure to do so could result in hefty fines.

What the film also regrettably fails to mention is a forest campaign that has had some measure of success – that of the Amazon rainforest. The vast, coordinated efforts of campaigners, businesses and governments have helped to combat the deforestation wreaked by soya farmers and cattle ranchers. By 2012, the rate of deforestation had dropped 80 per cent compared to its 2004 peak,  thanks to “a combination of consumer action, the mobilisation of global brands, commercial and trade pressures, the use of remote sensing technology, and, crucially, political will inside Brazil”, as Tony Juniper writes in his recent book, Rainforest. 

In contrast to these sweeping reforms, most of the national pledges to the Queen’s Canopy are presently limited to protections for relatively small sections of forests, or to additions to pre-existing botanical gardens. Neither of these will do much to help combat the dangerous fragmentation of rainforest ecosystems, or improve the health of city dwellers who need street-by-street planting.

This doesn’t mean that the pledges and the scheme itself can’t still grow, but there is little hope that the present government will back up the Queen’s larger ambitions, as hinted at in her wish to “change the climate again”. According to the Labour MP Frank Field, who first came up with the scheme, no recent Conservative or Labour government has wanted to touch the project. Only the Queen has thought it worth her time. 

An interview in the film with Boris Johnson sums up this political apathy well. Instead of mentioning the vital ways forests help tackle climate change, regulate rainfall, support economies and improve global health, he chooses instead to focus on an introspective, romantic vision of forests as some kind of aesthetic accessory: “I, in an almost sort of teutonic way, rejoice when I get into a glade or a bosky nook of one kind or another.” 

So while a post-Brexit refocus on the Commonwealth is admirable, without new laws and a new environmental watchdog, the UK’s hopes of international green leadership are limited. Without increased political support, the “Queen’s Canopy” will test the influence of traditional and symbolic power. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.