The Royals and the environment: What influence can they have?

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Prince Charles has been talking about the importance of sustainability and the need to take action over the dire state of the environment for years. Prince William has his Earthshot Prize to help repair the planet. Even Princess Charlotte — age six — has been showing an interest in the natural world, doing her part by helping count butterflies.

Conservation and environmental concerns have long been on the minds of members of the Royal Family. They will continue to be, particularly as Royals — including Queen Elizabeth, Charles and William — attend the upcoming COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.

What is harder to gauge, however, is the real-world impact of this royal interest and their initiatives.

“I think their heart is in it, and that’s the important thing … we really celebrate that green leadership,” said Joel Scott-Halkes, co-founder of U.K. campaign group Wild Card. It is urging the Royal Family to rewild its lands and bring thousands of hectares back to the way they were before humans imposed themselves on the natural landscape. 

“Now it’s time to go from an order of magnitude of ambition [of] little bits around the edges to completely transforming the whole way [the Royals] think about their land,” Scott-Halkes said via Zoom from Cornwall.

Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth plant a tree to mark the start of the official planting season for the Queen’s Green Canopy project at the Balmoral cricket pavilion on her Balmoral estate in Scotland on Oct. 1, 2021. The Queen’s Green Canopy is a tree-planting initiative to mark next year’s Platinum Jubilee, honouring her 70 years as monarch. (Andrew Milligan/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s a lot of land, given that the Royals hold the equivalent of an area twice the size of Greater London, Scott-Halkes said.

Take, for example, Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall, which has just six per cent tree cover, compared with a European Union average of 37 per cent.

“But more heartbreaking, if you love nature — a lot of the land owned by the Royals, despite all the eco credentials they boast about, features some of the worst landscapes in the world.”

In that, Scott-Halkes is including the vast landscape of the Queen’s Balmoral estate in the Scottish Highlands, with its grouse moors, which are routinely set on fire in order to keep vegetation low so it’s easier to shoot the birds for sport, and deer-stalking estates, where large numbers of deer are kept for shooting and little else grows.

“These are real, glaring omissions in the otherwise great green image of the Royals, and ultimately mean they’ve got a huge opportunity to really walk the walk, not just talk the talk, on climate action.”

The Queen’s Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has a vast landscape that some ecologists say would be a prime candidate for rewilding. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Wild Card issued its call in an open letter to the Royal Family signed by more than 100 scientists and celebrities earlier this year. As part of its campaign, broadcaster and conservationist Chris Packham and dozens of school climate strikers and their families were outside Buckingham Palace on Saturday to deliver a petition calling for the rewilding of Royal lands.

School striker Simeon Macaulay, 14, of Liss, Hampshire, entered palace grounds and gave the petition, which carried 100,000 signatures, to a member of royal staff — raising hopes that a rewilding commitment from the Royals may be imminent, Wild Card said in a news release.

“I couldn’t believe it when I found out I’d be allowed to enter Buckingham Palace to deliver the petition,” Macaulay said in the release. “It was crazy. It feels like the Royals are actually listening to us and might take action soon. With the climate crisis getting worse and worse, rewilding royal land would be a huge step towards saving our future.”

Simeon Macaulay, 14, delivers a Wild Card campaign petition to Buckingham Palace in London on Saturday, calling on the Royal Family to rewild its estates. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

In response to the open letter, a spokesperson for the Royal Estates said: “Members of the Royal Family have a long-standing commitment to conservation and biodiversity, and for over 50 years have championed the preservation and development of natural ecosystems.

“The Royal Estates are constantly evolving and looking for new ways to continue improving biodiversity, conservation and public access to green spaces, as well as being home to thriving communities and businesses which form part of the fabric of the local community.”

Royal interest in environmental concerns reaches back to Prince Philip’s early involvement in the World Wildlife Fund. For Prince Charles, there’s been an evolution in public perception — some of his early environmental ideas were seen as eccentric or odd 40 or 50 years ago, but now seem prescient.

“He went from being seen as having some comparatively unique interests to being seen as ahead of the curve when it came to organic farming, in particular,” said Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris. 

“The fact that he was vocally interested in organic farming and sustainable development helped to bring these ideas into the popular consciousness.”

Harris said the effectiveness of Prince William’s philanthropic efforts will be assessed over time.

He’s taken a strong interest in conservation and finding ways to draw together people who are working on such issues, something that his Earthshot Prize aims to do around climate action.

“Royalty are good at bringing people together,” said Harris, “so we’ve seen in the past Prince William founding United for Wildlife, bringing together various environmental conservation organizations in an effort to protect endangered species.”

Prince William, left, and British naturalist, documentary maker and broadcaster David Attenborough attend a conversation during the World Economic Forum annual meeting on Jan. 22, 2019, in Davos, Switzerland. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, the nexus between the Royals and the environment is a complicated one.

“The institution the Royal Family represents is at the root cause of the issues they currently are championing,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, national programs director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, via email.

Royal efforts to address biodiversity loss and the climate crisis should confront deeper issues lying in the history of the monarchy and colonialism, “and how their current wealth and power stems from ongoing oppression and over-exploitation of land, air and water,” she said.

“From a more narrow political perspective, the fact that the royals are embracing these issues means climate change in particular has shifted from being a political issue — as it has been framed by the oil and gas lobby for years — to a humanitarian and scientific issue.” 

To Fitzgerald, that indicates a validation of “both the overwhelming evidence of climate change and of the urgent need for all to work together to solve it.” 

“Of course, given the massive audiences reached by the Royal Family, it also means the critical issues of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis reach beyond the usual suspects, too.”

Prince Charles takes part in a coastal walk in Kaikoura, New Zealand, with key figures working to protect the local environment on Nov. 23, 2019. (Arthur Edwards/Getty Images)

For Wild Card, the thought of the Royals rewilding their estates — which include land it says was once temperate rainforest — holds the potential to inspire others to take environmental action, particularly leading up to COP26.

“We call upon the Royal Family to be the leaders that we desperately need to tackle the U.K.’s terrifying climate and biodiversity crisis,” said Bob Watson, one of the signatories on Wild Card’s open letter and a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Ecologist James Bullock, also a signatory, says the Royals’ landholdings offer “incredible opportunities” for rewilding. 

“If rewilded, the Balmoral estate could see the reintroduction of lynx, beavers and wolves, which would help stimulate the return of rich and diverse ecosystems.”

In some ways, said Scott-Halkes, “the outward-facing image of the Royals is very 21st-century and that’s to be applauded.”

Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, visit the Chiatibo glacier in the Hindu Kush mountain range in the Chitral district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, on Oct. 16, 2019. They spoke with an expert about how climate change is affecting glacial landscapes. (Neil Hall/Getty Images)

But what they practise on their own land is “almost colonial-era,” he said.

“That’s not to criticize the outward-facing [image]. It’s just to say you’ve got a great opportunity here to really show what climate action looks like and do it in your backyard at the same time.”

Back to work — with a nod to Canada

Queen Elizabeth meets members of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, on Oct. 6, 2021. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

Queen Elizabeth’s annual vacation in the Scottish Highlands wrapped up the other day, with the monarch returning south and getting back to public duties in what is scheduled to be a busy fall for the 95-year-old.

Canada was front and centre in her first public appearance in Windsor this week, right down to the sparkly diamond maple leaf brooch she or other members of the Royal Family often wear when the country is the focus of their attention.

Ninety members of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery U.K. Public Duties Contingent are in London and Windsor for a month. They are forming the Queen’s Guard at four high-profile royal locations: Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.

On Wednesday, the Queen met members of the contingent at Windsor Castle.

Maj. Michael Crosier, the guard commander for the contingent, said it is a huge privilege to be part of the Queen’s Guard.

“This is a tremendous honour for all of us,” he told CBC News in an interview outside Buckingham Palace earlier this week.

Training for the guard duties was extensive and took six weeks at the soldiers’ base in Shilo, Man., Crosier said. “Generally, we don’t do this special type of drill in Canada.”

Members of of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery had the opportunity to form the Queen’s Guard at the invitation of the Queen to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the regiment’s A and B batteries. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

The contingent’s duties include the changing of the guard ceremony, and they are accompanied by the 36 members of the Royal Canadian Artillery Band, which is based out of Edmonton.

The opportunity to form the Queen’s Guard came at the invitation of the Queen to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the regiment’s A and B batteries. 

“This is Canada’s first regular force unit, so it set the stage for us becoming a nation on our own,” Crosier said.

The Queen also undertook a public engagement at Buckingham Palace this week, when she, along with Prince Edward, launched the Queen’s baton relay for the 2022 Commonwealth Games that will be held in Birmingham, England, next summer.

This coming week, she’ll attend a service at Westminster Abbey along with Princess Anne to mark the centenary of the Royal British Legion, and attend the opening ceremony of the sixth session of the Welsh Parliament.

Two receptions are also on the Queen’s agenda — one at Windsor Castle to mark the Global Investment Summit on Oct. 19 and the other at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow on Nov. 1.

Bond, James Bond — and a bit of royal PR

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, left, speaks to actor Daniel Craig upon arrival for the world premiere of the new film from the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die, in London on Sept. 28, 2021. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

It was a long time coming, but the pandemic-delayed premiere of the new James Bond movie finally rolled out on the red carpet the other night, and members of the Royal Family were along, as they always are, to greet the latest 007.

There’s a special Britishness to the long-standing franchise — which has among its titles On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — and it was no surprise to see Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, meeting up with actor Daniel Craig and his No Time to Die castmates at Royal Albert Hall in London.

As much as the evening was about the movie — Craig’s last outing in the iconic role — there was also a bit of royal business playing out in front of the cameras.

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, left, Prince William, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Charles pose for photographers upon arrival for the No Time to Die premiere. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

“It’s interesting that we’re seeing more and more events where Charles and Camilla and William and Catherine are all appearing together, symbolizing the future of the Royal Family,” Harris said.

“We do see there’s a very clear statement that there are multiple generations of the Royal Family who are … undertaking public engagements and who are very visible.”

Craig’s time as 007 involved another high-profile and highly entertaining brush with the Royal Family, when he, the Queen and her corgis took part in a film sketch for the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London.

Royally quotable

Queen Elizabeth delivers a speech at the opening of the sixth session of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Oct. 2, 2021. (Jane Barlow/AFP/Getty Images)

“I have spoken before of my deep and abiding affection for this wonderful country and of the many happy memories Prince Philip and I always held of our time here. It is often said that it is the people that make a place and there are few places where this is truer than it is in Scotland, as we have seen in recent times.”

— Queen Elizabeth speaks publicly of Prince Philip for the first time since her husband of 73 years died in April. Her comments came as she officially opened the sixth session of the Scottish Parliament. 

Royal reads — and watches

  1. Our friends at CBC Docs have a new documentary called Harry & William: What Went Wrong? that explores the fractured relationship between the two brothers and how it developed over the last few years. The show is streaming on CBC Gem.

  2. Princess Beatrice and her husband, Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, have honoured her grandmother, the Queen, in the name of their first child. Sienna Elizabeth, the Queen’s 12th great-grandchild, was born on Sept. 18. [BBC]

  3. Prince Andrew will be able to review a 2009 settlement agreement that he hopes will shield him from a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexually abusing a woman two decades ago, when she was underage. [Reuters]

  4. Drawings and legal documents that once belonged to the Queen’s former dressmaker Norman Hartnell reveal details of a row that rocked the House of Windsor and his own fashion house six decades ago. [The Guardian]

  5. The announcement of Princess Mako’s upcoming wedding in Japan has set off a media frenzy, with its backdrop of scandal, tabloid intrusion and public disapproval. [The Guardian]

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