It was something of a surprise therefore when reports emerged last week that Heathrow had planned to rename Terminal 5 in His Majesty’s honour.
Queue the wheels of Buckingham Palace diplomacy gearing up and calls from ministers to politely but firmly intercept and block a move that didn’t quite reflect his more than five decades of campaigning.
It was back in 1968 that the then prince made his first speech on the subject, two years before a landmark address in which he laid bare the threat of pollution to the natural world.
‘We are faced at this moment with the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms,’ he said, addressing the Countryside Steering Committee for Wales in 1970. ‘There is the growing menace of oil pollution at sea, which almost destroys beaches and certainly destroys tens of thousands of seabirds.
‘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.’
Reflecting on his speech half a century later, the King remarked that he was ‘considered rather dotty’ for those views, but in 2023, those words couldn’t better capture the zeitgeist – while his lifetime of championing the environment shows this is no simple bandwagon to hitch a ride on. Even if it’s electric.
From taking his Duchy Home Farm organic in the 1980s and installing solar panels at Clarence House to converting his Aston Martin to run on bioethanol made from surplus wine and leftover whey, King Charles has long backed up his words with actions.
In doing so, he has also amassed a wealth of knowledge.
‘His Majesty has been for me, and remains, an absolute inspiration in terms of the dedication, longevity of his interests, the depth of his knowledge and breadth of the agenda he’s brought to public attention,’ says Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England.
‘There are very few people in his kind of position across the world who’ve made this kind of impact.’
Mr Juniper, previously a director at Friends of the Earth and WWF UK, co-authored a book on the environment with the then Prince of Wales. Harmony: A New Way Of Looking At Our World, also co-authored by Ian Skelly, was described by His Majesty as ‘a call to revolution’.
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But that’s in public.
In private, the King’s writing has covered a more broad range of topics, as revealed by the famous ‘black spider memos’ made public in 2015 after a ten-year legal battle – so called on account of his scrawled handwriting. A lack of resources for British troops in Iraq, Northern Ireland regeneration and history lessons were among the issues in his sights, but environmental matters were far from forgotten.
To the then environment secretary Elliot Morley, in 2004 he wrote: ‘I particularly hope that the illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish will be high on your list of priorities because until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross, for which I shall continue to campaign.’
His Majesty also stressed the importance of consumers buying and eating British beef, a rare occasion where his opinion is at odds with current thinking on best practice for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It has long been clear however that, while an undoubted champion of the environment, his allegiances fall firmly on the side of the farmer.
Writing in another letter to prime minister Tony Blair in 2005, the King said: ‘I do urge you to look again at introducing a proper cull of badgers where it is necessary. I, for one, cannot understand how the “badger lobby” seem not to mind at all about the slaughter of thousands of expensive cattle, and yet object to a managed cull of an overpopulation of badgers – to me, this is intellectually dishonest.’
Badgers remain a contentious issue in the countryside, with studies failing to conclusively prove their role in spreading bovine TB – but either way, the disease has a catastrophic effect on farming livelihoods.
‘Let us not forget, His Majesty is a farmer himself,’ says Keith Halstead, executive director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund. ‘He’s very, very knowledgeable about farming, he understands the hardships and the challenges.’
The fund, founded by the King in 2010, has invested more than £10million in projects across the UK to support rural communities.
‘Our focus is very much on the people,’ says Mr Halstead. ‘We’re not a lobbying body, we don’t advocate for specific policies. We’re a very practical organisation drawing on our experience, and we listen to those we support and respond to their needs.’
Perhaps inspired by the King, it seems many of those supported by the fund are increasingly aware of the need to adjust working practices if humanity is to mitigate the effects of climate change.
‘We currently have about 750 farming families on our resilience programmes across the UK,’ says Mr Halstead. ‘And out of those programmes, the two most popular are carbon and succession planning.’
Fortunately for farming families, succession is generally less brutal than that witnessed in the hit HBO show of the same name, but is of no less importance to the business. When it comes to carbon however, the impacts reach far beyond the farm gates.
Climate change, biodiversity, pollution – all subjects about which the King has voiced his concern in myriad ways, leading to the publication of the Terra Carta in 2021 as part of his Sustainable Markets Initiative. The mandate called for sustainability to be placed at the heart of the private sector, outlining ten articles designed to restore balance between progress and conservation.
‘The Terra Carta offers the basis of a recovery plan that puts nature, people and planet at the heart of global value creation – one that will harness the precious, irreplaceable power of nature combined with the transformative innovation and resources of the private sector,’ said the King at the unveiling.
In recent years, at least in part following sustained protests by environmental groups, climate change has become a mainstream issue. Its sister crisis, the precipitous decline in nature, has failed to gain as much traction, but that has not deterred King Charles in his support of those working to combat the situation.
‘We are extremely grateful for His Majesty’s support for over the past four decades and his enduring passion for protecting the natural world,’ says Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts.
‘The King has long been a champion for nature, recognising the importance of wild places both for wildlife and to protect our climate. Throughout his life he’s been ahead of the curve, backing the protection of peatlands over 30 years ago, helping The Wildlife Trusts restore wildflower meadows and bringing climate change to the core of public debate.’
The King's Series – a 'new era for conservation'
In honour of King Charles III, Natural England is expanding its flagship Natural Nature Reserves programme.
‘Natural Nature Reserves are identified as the best places for nature in the country – you might call them the jewels in the crown,’ says Tony Juniper. ‘We’ve been declaring these since 1952 and created 221 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
‘For the first 70 years, these have been declared for conservation – that is to say, hanging on to the last remnants of the country’s good wildlife areas.
‘What we’re now embarking on is a programme of nature recovery, restoring some of what has gone.
‘Over the next five years, we will be declaring 25 new Natural Nature Reserves that will not only protect places that are already outstanding for wildlife and nature, but places that will be recovered and restored – and linking up patches of remaining good habitat.
‘We are naming these 25 “The King’s Series of Natural Nature Reserves”, so not only marking a new sovereign, but a new era for conservation.’
The first to be unveiled – the Lincolnshire Coronation Coast National Nature Reserve – will be declared by Natural England this summer. Over 12 square miles in area, it contains a variety of sand dunes, saltmarsh, mudflats and freshwater marshes, which support many breeding and wintering birds, natterjack toads, special plants and insects.
Those who have worked with the King praise not only his knowledge in furthering the cause, but his manner. Queen Elizabeth II famously put any and all she met at ease, a trait Mr Halstead says the King has inherited.
‘He’s very much the same as the Queen,’ he says. ‘He’s very personable, very charming, interesting – and interested in you as an individual, he puts you at ease.’
Mr Juniper adds: ‘He’s very funny, very charming, utterly charming and passionate about the work. The hours he puts in are very considerable.’
But those hours were almost all logged as the Prince of Wales. What now for the ‘activist king’? Royal protocol dictates the family must not become directly involved with politics and politicians – a custom many argue the King breached as prince in writing the black spider memos.
‘He has a different role, and anyone who has a different job doesn’t do the old one anymore,’ says Mr Juniper. ‘That’s a simple point. There will be things he will now need to do differently.
‘But already since he took the role of king he has held two receptions in partnership with the UK government, one before the climate summit at the end of last year [Cop27] and another one after the biodiversity summit at the beginning of this year [Cop15].
‘They brought together people at a very high level from across the world to think about how we build more ambition and how we embed the solutions to these problems, including very stretching targets embedded into both international agreements and domestic law.
‘I think the King as head of state championing that in partnership with the government is a very comfortable position for him to be.’
Times are changing. Public support for the monarchy is at a historic low. But public concern over environmental matters shows the issue is no longer the domain of the ‘dotty’.
King Charles III has waited a long time to ascend to the throne. It seems unlikely two crowns and a coronation spoon will change a core tenet of his beliefs – one that has the potential to bond a new generation with the monarchy.
‘The journey hasn’t ended,’ says Mr Juniper. ‘He’s now able to lead the UK from the very highest level on the biggest subjects facing humankind, and doing that with an unparalleled track record.’
As Mr Bennett concludes, the King’s commitment to nature ‘will continue to resonate and inspire many people today, as well as future generations’.