The Royals have been all over my ‘to comment on’ list lately – a rather odd situation for a committed republican to find themselves in. Normally I just ignore the lot of them and hope they’ll go away, but twice since December I’ve had to comment on the will-he-won’t-he eco credentials of Prince Charles, and a few weeks ago his niece Zara Phillips practically jumped up and down and demanded my attention by making an advert for Landrover.
This week the prince was flying an entourage of twenty people – taking up sixty seats in a jumbo jet – to pick up an environmental award at Harvard. Sorry, but I don’t see how I could ignore that.
His choice of flight was, apparently, an attempt to reduce carbon emissions by block-booking a scheduled flight, rather than hiring a whole plane for his various hangers on. But the irony of catching a plane to collect an environmental award is no longer beyond our eagle-eyed journalists, who tried to bury Charles’ green reputation beneath an avalanche of column inches.
Both the Green Party and Plane Stupid weighed in with criticism. I tried to be constructive and suggested he might have set a good example by accepting the award by video link instead, and was delighted to see this very sensible suggestion taken up by several of the papers and even David Milliband, who also came up with a sarcastic (and decidedly non-ministerial) remark about the flight, asking if it was a particularly heavy gong.
This amused me seeing as the week before – as I complained in this blog – Milliband had quickly silenced a junior minister in his department for having a go at the airline chiefs. You couldn’t ask for a more brilliant illustration of where New Labour’s forelock tugging efforts are directed these days.
Anyway, all of this paid off. The royal spin doctors worked quickly to counter the bad publicity and by Saturday the prince had cancelled a holiday flight to Switzerland. Result!
Charles does provoke mixed feelings in me. I could be heard praising him six weeks ago for his announcement of plans to cut his carbon footprint by, among other things, encouraging staff on his estates to cycle to work. He has also recognised that he should stop taking quite so many wasteful helicopter flights, and his Duchy Originals food company is going to measure the emissions caused by all of their production processes.
And he has often done worthwhile charity and commercial work to back up his green ideas. Sometimes these can come across as well-meaning but off the wall. Take a look at Poundbury, the ‘perfect village’ that Prince Charles has built near the Dorchester bypass. It’s so achingly twee it could be a Miss Marple set, and it’s difficult to see how it could realistically fit into the modern world. Compared with other utopian architectural visions, such as Port Sunlight, Bourneville, or Welwyn Garden City, Poundbury owes more a Victorian folly than any cogent, alternative social models of architecture. And it’s certainly a community that is pretty reliant on the car.
Likewise, Duchy Originals products have struggled to break into mainstream shopping baskets, with their prices alone meaning they can only reach an extremely niche market (even if the idea of promoting UK organic products is a very sound one, given that we still import 70% of our organic produce).
On the other hand, his work with the Prince’s Trust is very ‘street’, promoting young people who are unable to get their business ideas listened to because of money, background or education. Still, I have to wonder why it is that we have to rely on the philanthropic work of our future monarch to get ideas like these off the ground.
So, a very mixed bag of green-ness from the Prince overall, with his patrician, medieval lordiness constantly banging up against his 21st century eco-loveliness.
Let’s try to put some figures on it to see where the balance lies. Exactly how much cycling would he have to encourage in order to compensate for that flight to America?
The Carbon Neutral calculator estimates that the carbon emissions of that flight would be around 24 tonnes for the twenty passengers, plus of course an extra 48 tonnes for the empty seats. To be fair, let’s remove the tonne or so he saved by cancelling his holiday in Switzerland and leave him 71 tonnes to recoup.
According to the Carbon Coach, this means his hundred-strong personal staff cycling into work every day for a year in order to compensate for the remaining emissions (assuming they live a comfortable two and a half miles from work).
Hmmm, not brilliant then. I guess that’s a lot of fitter, healthier servants, but who will Charles ask to make up for the emissions from his next flight? And what of his fleet of gas-guzzling cars including an Aston and a Bentley?