Prince Charles would be forgiven for feeling a degree of self-congratulation on stepping on to the stage at the global climate gathering Cop26 next month but, no matter how justified, it’s unlikely Prince Charles will allow himself even a flicker of personal satisfaction.
As an early – and often derided – adherent of environmentalism, he will take no automatic comfort from the fact that a convocation of powerful guests is assembling in Glasgow, with his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, also attending.
Prince Charles believes the stakes are high for the planet. He has always been ahead of the crowd when it comes to environmental awareness. For decades, he has been warning the world of climate change well before it was the widely known concept it is today. In doing so, he passed on his passion to his sons, Princes William and Harry, encouraging them to care for nature from a young age.
From teaching his children to pick up litter to allowing red squirrels to roam around his country home, Britain's future king has always counted environmentalism as one of his biggest priorities.
During a 1986 interview he commented that plants “respond” when they’re spoken to and that it’s “very important” to engage with them. The comment was met by marked scepticism and a proliferation of cartoons in the British press showing the prince talking to his plants. He was ridiculed for his sensitivity to nature and labelled as something of a crank. Yet he was vindicated even in this matter in 2007 when South Korean scientist Mi-Jeong Jeong claimed that playing music helped speed the growth and blossoming of rice plants.
He has certainly tried to practise what he preaches. Bought in 1980, Highgrove, his house in Gloucestershire, embodies the environmental philosophy that it’s better to work with nature than against it. The prince was adamant from the start that it should be an entirely organic garden and farm, even though there was then no sign of a garden at all. Thirteen years later in the book Highgrove: Portrait of an Estate, the prince wrote: “It was difficult to know where to begin and I knew nothing about the practical aspects of gardening.”
The beautiful Georgian house may be festooned with wisteria but is also fitted with solar panels, making it energy efficient and economical to heat. Rainwater is collected to minimise the use of other water for keeping all the plants well hydrated. Systems have been installed to keep everything irrigated using rainwater. There’s also a reed bed sewage system, so that all waste is processed naturally and the cleaned water fed back into the garden.
Kitchen and garden waste is carefully composted to make the most of leftovers, weeds and cuttings, and the compost is used to enhance growth and also as mulch. Everything at Highgrove is grown organically – flowers, fruit and vegetables. Prince Charles is determined that no chemicals are used and instead the garden relies on the use of natural fertilisers. More than 100 wheelbarrows full of manure from his cattle herds are used in the garden every year. This approach extends to the vegetables grown on the estate’s Home Farm.
Nor will the prince tolerate the use of chemical pest control. He prefers to rely on local wildlife: insects to eliminate the aphids, birds to eradicate slugs and snails, and even the local stoats to keep the rabbit population in check. He doesn’t allow chemicals to be used for weed control, preferring instead to rely on organic methods that protect the soil and don’t leave residue on fruit and vegetables.
Wildflower meadows are in serious decline in the UK so in 1982, the prince established his own, including species such as ox-eye daisies, buttercups, dandelions, poppies, ragged robin, yellow rattle, lent lilies and ice follies. It’s managed as a traditional hay meadow and is now home to wild orchids as well, providing a natural habitat for bees, butterflies and more. Sheep graze the meadow in the autumn to tread seeds back into the ground.
Prince Charles also joined the organic foods movement and has even established his own brand of organic foods – Duchy Originals – which are sold primarily at Waitrose shops in the UK. His support of these endeavours, as well as limiting his carbon footprint and that of his household, is such that in 2007 he was honoured by Harvard Medical School with the 10th Annual Global Environmental Citizen Award and was named the Most Influential Conservationist in the UK by BBC Wildlife magazine.
Speaking at the Saving the Ozone Layer World Conference in 1989, he said: “Since the Industrial Revolution, human beings have been upsetting that balance [of nature], persistently choosing short-term options and to hell with the long-term repercussions.”
When the prince spoke at the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, he asked the audience to consider what they could do to make the world more liveable. “Take a moment to consider the opportunities if we succeed,” he said. “Imagine a healthier, safer and more sustainable, economically robust world. Because if we share in that vision, we can share the will to action that is now required. The conclusion I draw is that the future of mankind can be assured only if we rediscover ways in which to live as a part of nature, not apart from her.”
At the Paris Cop summit in December 2011, Prince Charles said there was no plan B for climate change without forests. “It is very simple: we must save our forests,” he said, pointing out that humanity faces “critical challenges … without them.”
During the Our Ocean conference with the European Union in 2017, Prince Charles called catastrophic hurricanes a direct consequence of climate change. “If the unprecedented ferocity of recent catastrophic hurricanes is not the supreme wake-up call that it needs to be, to address the vast and accumulating threat of climate change and ocean warming, then we – let alone the global insurance and financial sectors – can surely no longer consider ourselves part of a rational, sensible civilisation,” he said.
At this conference, it was announced the EU would devote more than $820 million to protecting oceans through more than 30 initiatives. “While we should be relieved that the health of the ocean is now understood, alongside rainforests, to be one of the essential prerequisites for our physical and economic survival, I wonder if the ocean’s fragility is yet truly grasped and how susceptible it is to the impacts of our economic activities,” he said. “We must never mistake [the oceans] for a new frontier for endless economic exploitation.”
He commended young people for fighting for environmental change while he and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, were in the Caribbean in March 2020. During his last day on the royal tour, he said young people deserved action to help them out of an “appalling crisis” caused by “potentially catastrophic global warming”.
“We demand the world’s decision makers take responsibility and solve this crisis,” he said.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2020, Prince Charles met climate activist Greta Thunberg, then 17, and gave a passionate speech about climate change. “Do we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink in time to restore the balance when we could have done? I don’t want to,” he said. He also used the conference to announce his new Sustainable Markets initiative, which urges businesses to put the Earth first in their operations.
In January, Prince Charles launched his most ambitious environmental project to date after 50 years of campaigning, creating a £7.5 billion ($10.34bn) fund to save the planet from destruction. He announced the scheme as part of the ground-breaking “Terra Carta” agreement, aimed at convincing the world’s biggest companies to make ethical investments.
In a speech at the One Planet Summit in Paris, he appeared on video link to reveal a plan for global organisations to put “Nature, People and Planet” at the heart of their business while still contributing to the economy. The aim is to raise $10bn this year for an investment fund in sustainable projects, which will directly benefit the environment, known as Natural Capital.
Prince Charles has spent months gathering a “coalition of the willing” that he hopes will encourage others to get on board. He believes it will provide a basis for the world’s largest corporations to back environmental schemes, such as reforestation and biodiversity projects, while earning profit and contributing to solving the climate crisis.
Unusually, in a rare moment of public candour, a mere two weeks before the opening of the Cop26 convention, the Queen voiced her “irritation” at those who “talk” about climate change but who “don’t do”. Queen Elizabeth II – who is possibly the ultimate global influencer – and Prince Charles – who weathered all the early ridicule – along with his children, are a now royal hat-trick of three generations who have spoken out about the pressing need to address climate change.