“It all seems obvious to me,” King Charles III recently told German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, referring to the need for a green transition. During a boat ride to an electrolyser site in Hamburg’s harbour, the UK’s new monarch confessed he felt like he was becoming “a frustrated old man” over attitudes to the climate emergency.
The King is certainly no stranger to the climate fight. Over the last 50 years, Charles III has been very public about his concern for the environment, with many of his statements blurring the lines of the Crown’s political neutrality. In this way, his accession to the throne is expected to limit his ability to be outspoken about matters of public policy. Yet, it also marks the first time that the UK has a declared environmentalist as Head of State.
“We have to put ourselves on what might be called a war-like footing,” the King said during the COP26 climate conference in 2021. In his speech, he called for “a vast military-style campaign” that would “marshal the strength of the global private sector” and mobilise it for the climate fight. But is this a battle that he can – or even should – lead?
The King delivered his first condemnation of single-use plastic at the age of 21, seven years before the phrase ‘global warming’ was coined. He recently recalled being called ‘dotty’ and ‘mad’ when he made the decision to invest in regenerative organic agriculture in his Highgrove estate, back in 1985. The criticism did not stop him. Seven years later, produce from the farm was used by the prince to start Duchy Originals – now Waitrose Duchy Organic – the UK’s largest own-label organic food and drink brand. Since 2009, the company has generated over £34m for The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund, which has been used to fund innovative farming projects such as a new field lab aiming to revolutionise grass management by using data from space to boost productivity.
“If farmers know more accurately how their pastures are performing, they can develop their business to make better use of them, delivering more forage for their animals,” says Kate Still, livestock adviser for Innovative Farmers and the Soil Association. “This increased information on productivity can build confidence to farm more agro-ecologically, creating healthier soils that can store more carbon and support more wildlife.”
The King has undertaken green reforms in most of his homes and estates, to reflect his commitment to reducing reliance on fossil fuels. In 2010, Charles installed 32 solar panels on the roof of Clarence House, his 200-year-old London residence, with his Highgrove and Ray Mill residences shortly following suit. The largest number of photovoltaic panels (424) was installed at Duchy Home Farm, where it generates 80,000kWh of electricity a year – enough to power 20 non-royal homes. The King also divested his personal finances from fossil fuels in 2015 and has stated he offsets his travel emissions by buying carbon credits.
Charles’ commitment to the environment goes beyond his personal lifestyle. Over the years, the former Prince of Wales has used his influence to encourage political and business leaders to invest in environmental policies. His Rainforest Project played a significant role in negotiating an agreement that resulted in Norway paying $250m to Guyana in 2009, in exchange for the country limiting its annual deforestation rate to 0.056 per cent over the following five years. In 2020, Charles also launched the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI). Described as a “coalition of the willing”, the project brings together over 500 CEOs who have signed Charles’ Terra Carta pledge and agreed to “rapidly accelerate the transition towards a sustainable future”.
“It’s not a lack of capital that is holding us back but rather the way in which we deploy it,” Charles said when presenting the SMI. “To move forward, we need nothing short of a paradigm shift… For me, sustainable markets offer a new systems-level framework, which grounds markets in a higher-purpose mission. In other words, putting people and planet at the heart of global value creation.”
However, not everyone was pleased about a prince involving himself so heavily in a cause that so dangerously bordered politics. Jonathon Porritt, the former head of the Green party and adviser to the Prince, has confessed the then-environment secretary was “furious” when Charles publicly complained that the North Sea had become “a rubbish dump” and called for joint action to remedy the situation. If the government expressed aggravation, it did not stop him, as the Prince continued to promote his environmental agenda in books and public speeches, and requested action from government ministers in private “black spider” letters. To date, Charles’ most surprising declaration was probably that made in 2013, when he criticised “the international association of corporate lobbyists” for turning the Earth into a “dying patient”.
But can an environmentally conscious prince become a green king? During his first address to the nation as a monarch, Charles stated that it would “no longer be possible for me to give so much time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply”. However, although his commitment to the environmental cause is obvious, there is a question of whether he should – or is even able to – make a change.
Institutionally, the King must walk a careful tightrope when it comes to lobbying for climate policies. The Royal Family describes the sovereign as “a focus for national identity, unity and pride”, and has often stated its position as “politically neutral”. This was often perceived as the key to Elizabeth II’s popularity, with the Queen winning over the nation with her constant but ever-quiet presence. Historian David Starkey has called her “Elizabeth the Silent”, and even the Beatles sang that “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say” in their 1969 song ‘Her Majesty’. Her son and successor, however, might choose a different path.
“Do we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink, in trying to restore the balance, when we could have done?” Charles said in 2020. “I don’t want to. The only limit is our willingness to act, and the time to act is now.”
Despite its institutional limitations, the King is not without influence or resources, which he could leverage for the climate cause. As Head of State and leader of the Commonwealth, Charles is expected to hold recurring meetings with political leaders, where he could push for green reform. Moreover, alongside the fancy title, Charles has also inherited a vast portfolio of land and property in the form of grand estates, some of which he maintains control over, such as the Duchy of Lancaster, while others are managed independently from him, namely the Crown Estate. It is precisely in the latter where some of the most meaningful action has been taken when it comes to the Crown’s investment in renewable energy – providing an example of the type of action the King could take in his own estates.
In January 2023, the Crown Estate signed six lease agreements that allowed for installation of offshore wind projects, with the potential of producing 8GW of electricity – enough to power seven million homes. Overall, the Crown Estate has awarded lease rights for wind farms totalling 41GW, almost 12GW of which is already operational, accounting for the largest source of renewable electricity in the UK, according to estate officials. The organisation has also taken an interest in carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) projects, having recently opened a survey to stakeholders that could inform a future leasing agreement.
“We are already enabling the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy network by supporting the leasing of offshore wind, but CCUS is another key ingredient in helping to achieve a net-zero future, and this engagement programme will help bring that ambition closer,” says Philippa Parmiter, gas storage development manager for Crown Estate Scotland.
As established by the Sovereign Grant, the King receives 25 per cent of the Crown Estate’s annual surplus, including an extra 10 per cent for the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace. Moreover, a 2004 Act of Parliament granted the monarch the right to collect royalties from wind and wave power farms on the estate. Conscious of the cost-of-living crisis, the King has requested that the £1bn-a-year profits from the new contracts “be directed for the wider public good”. Yet the question arises: how much more green energy could be produced should Charles choose to lease his own private lands?
Heavy carbon footprint
King Charles’ position as a climate spokesperson is not without contradictions. Beyond institutional debates, the UK’s Head of State has a lifestyle that often clashes with his idea of sustainable living. Overall, the British Royal Family has a carbon footprint of 3,810 tonnes a year, with Charles being personally accountable for 432.3 tonnes, according to climate group The Eco Experts. And, although his vintage Aston Martin runs on surplus wine and excess cheese whey, that is probably not the case for all the vehicles in his private luxury car fleet, worth an estimated £6.3m. Travel is a requirement of the job, but this fact did not win the King any sympathies when the public learned about the 17 private jet flights he took in 2019. Or the time the following year, when he took a private helicopter to travel from Highgrove to Cambridge University to give a speech about the need to decarbonise air travel.
“Private planes and helicopters use 10 to 20 times the carbon emissions of just taking a normal plane, train or electric car,” said Dr Lucy Gilliam, campaigner for the group Transport & Environment at the time. “I don’t doubt that Charles really does get the message, but if he wants to be really effective, he must make those changes that will send such an enormous signal to the world.”
Despite positive reactions to the King’s decision to redirect the £1bn-a-year profits from wind farms on Crown Estate lands to the British public, both he and his father have publicly opposed this energy source. Prince Philip once claimed wind turbines were “an absolute disgrace” that “would never work and would need backup capacity”, while Charles has described turbines as a “horrendous blot on the landscape”, according to the Guardian. In 2005, the Sunday Times revealed the then-Prince of Wales had refused to install wind turbines in English and Welsh lands that belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall, his £700m private estate: a revelation that sparked considerable controversy.
“It is hypocrisy,” said Leanne Wood, a Welsh politician and former leader of Plaid Cymru, at the time. “[The prince] stands to benefit from wind projects on land in Wales but opposes them himself. If that is his position, there shouldn’t be windfarms on Crown Estate land.”
The choice is perhaps more baffling considering Charles’ own speech, given only a few months after the Cambridge lecture, where he asked his audience: “What good is all the extra wealth in the world, gained from ‘business as usual’, if you can do nothing with it except watch it burn in catastrophic conditions?”
Keeping it green… quietly
Given the King’s long history of climate advocacy, it is unlikely that a heavy crown will cause him to stop caring about the climate. However, his pursuit of a green agenda will require a new strategy. Instead of writing admonishing letters to ministers, Charles now has a weekly meeting with the British Prime Minister and will carry out state visits to other countries, where he could privately push for climate action. The King has also gained full control over the Royal Family’s private lands, which could be used to generate renewable power should he choose to make peace with wind turbines. Even within the restrictions of the position, the King could make his commitment to the environment the defining feature of his reign – if he’s willing to walk the talk.
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