Prince Charles was an environment radical. What happens now he’s King?

Britain’s new monarch has been an outspoken campaigner for the environment for more than 50 years. Could the planet benefit from Charles III’s reign?

Prince Charles – now King Charles III – views the impact of illegal logging in the Harapan Rainforest, Indonesia, 2008.

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy
By Jonathan Manning
Published 23 Sept 2022, 12:39 BST

It’s not so much the robust tone and unprincely language that is striking – “We are faced at this moment with the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms” – but the date: February 19, 1970.

Long before Greta Thunberg – before Greta’s mother was born, even – His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (his official title at the time) addressed the Countryside in 1970 conference, and did not pull any punches. “There is the growing menace of oil pollution at sea, which almost destroys beaches and certainly destroys tens of thousands of seabirds,” he said.

“There is chemical pollution discharged into rivers from factories and chemical plants, which clogs up the rivers with toxic substances and adds to the filth in the seas. There is air pollution from smoke and fumes discharged by factories and from gases pumped out by endless cars and aeroplanes.” 

Prince Charles, age 22, addresses The Countryside in 1970 Committee for Wales at Bangor University, North ...

Prince Charles, age 22, addresses The Countryside in 1970 Committee for Wales at Bangor University, North Wales. His speech that day underlined Charles's interest and advocacy for the environment – and set out views that have since become prophetic in climate change.

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

For context, in that same month half a century ago the Jackson 5 made their TV debut, a federal district court jury acquitted the Chicago Seven, and Black Sabbath issued the world’s first heavy metal album. Prince Charles, meanwhile, was arguing that: “Conservation or problems about pollution should not be held up as separate concepts from housing or other social schemes. 'Conservation' means being aware of the total environment that we live in… The word ecology implies the relationship of an organism to its environment and we are just as much an organism as any other animal that is often unfortunate enough to share this earth with us.”

Charles entered green activism very early in the game. He made his first speech on the environment in 1968 – seven years before the phrase ‘global warming’ was coined by geoscientist Wallace Broecker – and throughout the 1970s and 1980s frequently found himself a lost voice as he called for a balanced approach to living. 

1957: young Prince Charles chases an errant calf on a farm at Balmoral, the Scottish royal ...

1957: young Prince Charles chases an errant calf on a farm at Balmoral, the Scottish royal estate first bought by Queen Victoria – his great-great-great grandmother. 

Photograph by Keystone Press / Alamy

Slowly the world has caught up with his ideas – in theory, if not practice. He hosted a conference on the Royal Yacht Britannia, in the Amazon river delta, that prepared the ground for 1992 Rio Earth Summit, birthplace of the “conference of the parties”, better known as the COPs. Twenty years later Charles addressed the Rio+20 COP, warning, “Like a sleepwalker, we seem unable to wake up to the fact that so many of the catastrophic consequences of carrying on with business-as-usual are bearing down on us faster than we think, already dragging many millions more people into poverty and dangerously weakening global food, water and energy security for the future.”

Visionary thinking

It may be tempting to think of the new King, with his bespoke Savile Row suits, Edwardian manners and royal retinue, as an icon of a previous age. But his speeches, books and projects do suggest a man ahead of his time. He was advocating concepts such as the circular economy and natural capital years before they captured the public’s imagination, and he’s clearly followed his own principles, converting his farm to organic practices more than 30 years ago. 

“Some of these ideas were radical and literally decades ahead of their time. Some you could reprint today and they would be very much of the moment. It’s hard to overstate the role he played in putting these subjects on the agenda,” says Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, a fellow with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and former executive director of Friends of the Earth and president of the Wildlife Trusts.

1970: Prince Charles stands beneath the peak of Yr Wydffa – known also as Snowdon – the highest point in the Principality of Wales, whose title he held until the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022. 

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Juniper previously worked for Charles’s Rainforests Project and International Sustainability Unit, and collaborated with the then prince on the ground-breaking book Harmony – which identified a crisis of perception in the way humankind now sees the world, having systematically severed itself from nature.

“We rely on technology to solve our problems and our ingenuity to meet any challenge when, in fact, the answer is to see ourselves as we really are – deeply embedded in a biosphere which is comprised of innumerable interconnections between elements of the living world,” says Juniper.

Trying to reconnect populations to nature in this ‘age of disconnection’ has been a constant theme of Charles’s campaigning, a philosophy that was initially mocked by a media that was keener to focus on what were portrayed as his mumbo-jumbo eccentricities, such as talking to plants.

‘Anti-science dreamer’

“In those early days I was described as old fashioned, out of touch and anti-science; a dreamer in a modern world,” writes Charles in Harmony.

Photographs of him wearing grass skirts and flower garlands over his tie and perfectly-pressed Anderson & Sheppard suits whilst meeting indigenous tribes did little to help his image, but the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II was never looking to return humanity to the Stone Age, or deny progress and science. He claims he simply wanted to redress our mechanistic approach to it.

Charles's Aston Martin DB6 was famously converted to run on out-of-date English white wine and cheese whey. In a BBC interview in 2021, Charles described himself as a car enthusiast 'before we knew what the problems were'. He advocates hydrogen as a key future fuel.

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

Prince Charles addressed the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in 2021 at the opening ceremony. "I can only urge you, as the world's decision-makers, to find practical ways of overcoming differences,” he said, ”so we can all get down to work, together, to rescue this precious planet and save the threatened future of our young people.”

Photograph by Will Crowne / UK Government

“No brain-scanner has ever managed to photograph a thought, nor a piece of love for that matter, and it never will,” he says, but this doesn’t mean thoughts and love don’t exist. “We have come to function with a one-sided, materialistic approach that is defined not by its inclusiveness, but by its dismissal or those things than cannot be measured in material terms.”

Returning a philosophical element to our relationship with nature, and accepting that we can only live sustainably by finding “the delicate balance and sacred harmony of the Universe,” is vital for joining the links between science and policy, he argues.

For someone who is now the head of the Church of England, Charles is also quite ecumenical in his outlook, happy to cite the Qu’ran for explicitly identifying a natural world that finds no separation between mankind and nature “precisely because there is no separation between the natural world and God,” and celebrating the beliefs of indigenous and primary cultures that consider the natural world to be an expression of sacred presence.

Protecting the environment is a moral duty, he believes, writing in Newsweek that, “If we only maintain our rights now without acknowledging our responsibilities to those who come after us, then we would have failed to act morally.”

Talking the talk

Perhaps the very nature of being able to trace his family tree back through the House of Hanover to 1630 as well as centuries of royal estate ownership give Charles a precious long-term perspective.

“I have rather subscribed to an outlook shared by many indigenous peoples that we must be thinking seven generations ahead really to have any chance to be sure that we leave a better world behind us,” he said earlier this year. And he frequently refers to the sense of duty he feels towards the next generations.

“There's millions and millions of young people out there on whose behalf, they may not realise it, I've been trying to work for the last 40 years. One of the things that motivated me more than anything else is that I didn't want to be accused by my grandchildren or children of not doing the things that needed doing at the time,” he told the Chief Negotiators Reception at COP26.

Then there is his clout as a figure. It’s not unusual for Charles to hold a roundtable with heads of state one day, then the CEOs of the world’s major banks on another, followed by NGOs, international agencies and governments on a third – cross-pollinating highly influential audiences with his ideas. 

“One of the things that motivated me more than anything else is that I didn't want to be accused by my grandchildren or children of not doing the things that needed doing at the time.”

Prince Charles, in 2021

“His work in convening groups of people and across sectors has been less visible but hugely important,” says Juniper. “I don’t think there is anybody else in the world who can convene these groups of people.”

Charles played a significant role, for example, in brokering the 2009 agreement that sees Norway reward Guyana for keeping its rainforest intact.

“The idea of the Rainforests Project was to make the forest worth more alive than dead, which sounds very simple but which is very powerful in reframing the discussion,” says Juniper. “Forests are being cut down to generate an economic return, so we had to reframe this to show the economic value of these forests intact is far greater than when they are liquidated into cattle pasture and a pile of logs. In terms of their water, their carbon functions, what they do to maintain biodiversity, their cultural functions for indigenous societies that still live there – all of these things have enormous value. But it’s off balance sheet, so being able to put this into the equation to show that we are destroying value to get little in return is very powerful.”

King Charles's Gloucestershire home, Highgrove is part of the Duchy of Cornwall, a land holding traditionally inherited by the eldest son of the ruling monarch. Despite its name, the duchy has property across the south-west of England and south Wales. Charles has used parts of it to develop his interests in organic farming and sustainable living. Highgrove itself has a reed bed sewer, extensive composting systems, biomass and pump-fed heating and partial solar-powered lighting. In 2010 Charles was granted planning permission to install solar panels on the Grade II-listed Clarence House, his London residence. 

Photograph by WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy

Prince Charles at the launch of Project Ocean, an initiative by department store Selfridge's to raise awareness of over-fishing. In an interview with the BBC in 2021 Charles said he 'completely understood' the frustration of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, though added he thought protest tactics were 'unhelpful' if they alienated the public. 

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

Walking the walk

Viewed in this light, King Charles is an original influencer, wielding substantial soft power from a palace rather than social media soapbox. As early as 1990, businesses wanting a Royal Warrant for goods or services supplied to Charles have had to demonstrate a responsible approach to environmental and social issues.

Charles himself has farmed organically since 1990, planting more than 15 miles of hedgerows and hosting more than 1,000 people per year at his Duchy Home Farm to teach them about farming principles and practices that promote healthy soil, livestock and produce.

He has also fitted solar panels on the roofs of his official residence at Clarence House, private houses at Highgrove and Raymill, and installed a further 424 at Duchy Home Farm, generating over 80,000kWh electricity annually – enough to power 20 average houses. To fulfil his net zero commitment, he buys credits from sustainable projects to offset the carbon emissions from his household and non-official travel.

The new King appears happy to hold his personal consumption up for scrutiny, commissioning the sustainability consultancy Anthesis Group to independently audit his carbon footprint. Charles's most recent household Carbon Report detailed how, “This year 89% of energy (including green gas and electricity) came from renewable sources and just under half of this was generated on-site by solar panels, biomass boilers and heat pumps.” Charles himself famously drives an Aston Martin, albeit a 1960 model fuelled by, he says, surplus English white wine and leftover whey from cheese-making – technically, a mix of waste-derived bio-ethanol and 15% unleaded petrol. 

Outside of his personal activities, it's Charles’s official travel which attracts most of his sceptics. In combination with that of the rest of the royal family, this has an inescapably large carbon cost – as well as a bill averaging around £2.5 million per year. While 'offsetting' is frequently mentioned, the exact steps taken to reduce this are less public. As part of their official duties in 2019, pre-COVID, Charles and his wife Camilla made 17 private jet flights, three scheduled flights and two more on RAF helicopters. Private jets are said to emit as much as 20 times more CO2 per passenger mile than a commercial airliner. 

Advocate for action 

With his accession to the throne following the death of the Queen, there is a question mark over how King Charles III will maintain his environmental activism. “I don’t believe he will change his views about the importance of all this, but he will probably have to change the way he does it,” says Juniper.

“Charles has never been at liberty to wave placards or glue himself to runways, but he has left Government ministers in no doubt of where he stands on issues that are important to him.”

Now the pillar of the establishment, Charles has never been at liberty to wave placards at demonstrations or glue himself to runways, but he has left UK Government ministers in no doubt of where he stands on issues that are important to him. Robert Jobson, author of the biography Charles Our Future King, highlights the so-called ‘black spider memos’ – hand written letters to ministers in black, spidery writing. 

“What he writes is within any bounds of the unwritten constitution. With this in mind, in Charles’s view, it is his ‘constitutional duty’ … to act in this way,” wrote Jobson. “Drawing attention to key topics on which his unique position has enabled him to glean information, such as climate change, organic farming or youth empowerment, is demonstrating ‘leadership’.” 

Charles's political lobbying – the extent of which was revealed after a 10-year legal battle – is in contrast to his mother, the late Queen. In an interview with The Guardian former Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “entirely right” for Charles to do so, adding: “I think the heir to the throne has a perfect right to have interest in issues like the environment, preserving wildlife, his interest in the built environment.” Charles himself, in an interview with the BBC on the eve of COP26 in 2021, spoke of his frustration at such political gatherings – “they just talk, the problem is to get action” – and his understanding of the motives behind groups such as Extinction Rebellion – though added demonstrations were “not helpful [when done] in a way that alienates people.”  

Change of role, change of viewpoint? 

‘Meddling’ in politics has led to criticism of Charles, most recently over his reported opposition to deporting asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda. He is not, after all, elected to his position of influence and while he insists he is non-party political, as King he will likely have even less opportunity to express his views.

“If you become the sovereign then you play the role in the way that it is expected,” he told the BBC’s Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70.

Prince Charles and his son Prince William walk through Home Farm in Gloucestershire – part of the Duchy of Cornwall's land holdings – in 2004. William, now Prince of Wales, has made significant strides to inheriting his father's stance on the environment, lending his voice to initiatives such as the Earthshot Prize.  

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

“Clearly I won’t be able to do the same things I’ve done as heir. So, of course, you operate within the constitutional parameters. But it’s a different function. I think people have forgotten that the two are very different.”

But this does not mean his environmental cause will die with him; like in his organic farming, Charles appears to have prepared the ground well. In the same Prince, Son and Heir documentary, Prince William – now Prince of Wales – revealed how he and his brother Harry had acquired their father’s habit of turning off lights. “I’ve got serious OCD on light switches,” he said, adding his father made them both pick up litter.

Moreover, at the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, while Prince Charles used his speech to honour his mother, Prince William, champion of the Earthshot Prize, praised ‘visionary environmentalists’ and told tens of thousands of people on The Mall and millions more watching at home that “the pressing need to protect and restore our planet has never been more urgent.”


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