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14 September 2022

For king and countryside: William must surpass his father’s green legacy

To live up to King Charles’s environmental promise, Prince William will have to be even more bold.

By India Bourke

No one knows what words are shared between a prime minister and monarch in the sanctuary of their weekly audiences. But “frack off” are two that I find myself daydreaming King Charles III will say to Liz Truss. Royal etiquette alone doubtless forbids it, yet with an environmentally minded monarch now paired with a pro-fracking, pro-deregulation prime minister the odds are that, at some point, the two are going to clash.

Over the last fifty years Charles has built a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost environmental voices. From driving a dual-fuel Prius around London, to founding the Duchy Organics food brand, to lobbying government ministers on issues such as illegal fishing and energy efficiency, Charles has immersed himself in green causes. His former adviser, the environmentalist Tony Juniper, has described him as “possibly the most significant environmental figure in history”. A book that Juniper co-wrote with Charles in 2010, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, opens with no less than “a call to revolution”, of the green kind at least.

Such campaigning zeal, however, will now be tempered by the constitutional obligation for the monarch to remain politically neutral. Charles will be able to cajole Truss behind closed doors and “give lots of speeches where climate and nature will be absolutely right and relevant”, the former Greenpeace CEO John Sauven told the New Statesman (citing government policy of providing renewable energy to Africa as an example). The new King has also made it clear, however, that he will not be overstepping the regal mark. “I am not that stupid,” he responded in 2018 when asked whether he would be a meddling monarch.

This raises a question: will Prince William step up to fill his father’s impassioned wellies?

William’s expressions of environmental concern to date, while seemingly heartfelt, do not scream of his father’s “revolutionary” fervour. His comment that he enjoyed “climbing trees as a kid” sits firmly in a Wind in the Willows school of environmental support. It is about as politically beige as it’s possible for a green to be; on the Farrow and Ball colour chart, it’s Cromarty.

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Charles’s philosophising, meanwhile, has sometimes been on the esoteric side. Instead of modernity’s hunger for consumption, we need a worldview rooted in the life-sustaining “grammar of nature” as evidenced by ancient wisdoms such as Pythagoras’s Golden Mean, he argued in Harmony. The King’s environmentalism is at least as personal as it is political, and his thinking is often at odds with capitalism’s emphasis on material gain.

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In contrast, William’s pursuit of internet-friendly “likeability” emphasises the monarchy’s value in the modern market for attention. The prince’s advocacy for his Earthshot Prize, in collaboration with David Attenborough, was steeped in social media savvy. And while widely shared comments about investing in nature to protect “our children and grandchildren” may help to bring the green message to new audiences, they also have safe, focus-group vibes to them.

That said, William may also still be only at the beginning of his journey as a climate activist. Juniper notes that it took Charles “many years to build up the head of steam he did”; by the time William, now 40, is 60, “he may have similarly profound reflections”, Juniper says, and he has “every expectation the new Prince of Wales will follow in a similar vein”. Furthermore, in a recent set of speeches during the Jubilee celebrations it was William, not Charles, who emphasised the themes of environment and sustainability, suggesting to Juniper a passing of the baton and a “striking glimpse of the future”.

Perhaps the deeper question to ask, therefore, is whether the monarchy as a whole is even capable of fully meeting the challenge faced by nature and the climate? For all that Charles – and Prince Philip before him – are hailed for being ahead of their time green issues, their environmentalism has also had limits. From speaking out against the illegal wildlife trade, to participating in the Big Butterfly Count, cuddly nature conservation has been more their territory than the promotion of clean energy (Charles opposed wind turbines in the early 2000s) or climate finance (which he has rarely mentioned).

Initiatives such as Charles’s Accounting for Sustainability Project and Sustainable Markets Initiative have gone some way to addressing thorny economic issues but their “Terra Carta” pledge, which encourages companies to sign up to sustainability goals, needs to achieve some tangible results to avoid becoming mere greenwashing. “The climate and ecological crises are rooted in inequality, both within and between countries; tackling them will require credible engagement with this fact,” warns Adrienne Buller, director of research at the think tank Common Wealth.

Furthermore, the Crown still epitomises Britain’s highly concentrated and problematic system of land-ownership. Only 6 per cent of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has now passed to William, is wooded, for example, compared with the UK-wide 13 per cent (and 38 per cent in the EU), according to the charity Wild Card, which supports re-wilding. “Recent photos of Prince William taking his son grouse shooting – widely considered to be one of the most ecologically destructive sports ever invented – does little to encourage us that [his] environmentalism is anything more than posturing,” it says.

Other environmentally dubious features of the monarchy include Charles’s promotion of biofuels (he runs his Aston Martin car on surplus English white wine and whey) and the decision of William and his wife, Catherine, to keep investments from their Royal Foundation in a bank with large ties to fossil fuels.

To truly live up to Charles’s environmental promise, then, William will have to surpass him. Yet while there is plenty of room for improvement, that might not be a bad thing when such a right-wing government holds power. For if the monarchy is setting a relatively low bar, those most concerned with maintaining established power should meet less resistance if they try to clear it. If this means Liz Truss can be persuaded to do so, then Charles’s reign will deserve its fanfare.

[See also: Silence reigns]