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A unique moment in history, what does it mean for the environment?


By Vikki Slade

Last week was a unique point in history – the only time that this country has seen both a change of prime minister and monarch within a few days.  In 1952 the transfer of power from one Government to the next happened just 3 months before the accession of Elizabeth II but the new Prime Minister was the experienced Winston Churchill, and this took place following a snap General Election.

In this case, the experience lies within the Monarchy, as King Charles III has spent most of his life as heir to the throne, preparing for this role and establishing a clear position on the issues that matter so much to him.

His commitment to the environment, to young people seeking work and to architecture have been well documented and the change in protocol that will restrict how vocal he can continue to be will surely be a test for him.

Whilst the new Prime Minister has committed to retaining the 2050 Net Zero pledge and has made an early appointment of Chris Skidmore who signed the pledge into law, she has also scrapped the ban on fracking and failed to clamp down on excessive profits from fossil fuel giants by refuting calls for a windfall tax.

So, what will the changing of the guard politically and constitutionally mean for the environment?

The monarch and their prime minister have a weekly audience and as Boris Johnson revealed in a BBC interview, The Queen had been ‘focused on the issues that were important to her’ so we might have some confidence that the climate and the progress towards net zero might be discussed.  Perhaps King Charles will feel that in these private meetings he can be more forthright than is possible publicly? Perhaps as he adjusts the way the Royal Estates and diary are managed he will lead from the front on matters of the environment?

At COP26 in Glasgow, President Biden was seen to remark to the then Prince of Wales ‘we need you badly’ after talking of the Prince’s role in putting the environment on the agenda. The Commonwealth was one of the first organisations to commit to Climate action in 1989 in the Langkawi declaration.

King Charles has a unique role in supporting island nations where human civilization is likely to be most directly affected.  I would also expect him to use his international visits to put climate change top of the agenda, in a way others may not have done.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister is in a difficult position.  Having committed to tax cuts in her first speech and appointing Jacob Rees Mogg to BEIS she has made clear her short-term priorities and there is real concern that this might undermine the strategic thinking around net zero.

As a student of Economics, I am well versed in the laws of supply and demand, but in recent weeks there has been little said about reducing demand – just gung-ho statements on increasing supply to avenge President Putin.  Locally extracted fossil fuels are preferable to those with an added environmental cost of travel, but the hostility by the new Prime Minister towards onshore wind and solar give some cause for concern.

Contrary to the Business Secretary’s claims of ‘hairshirt greenery’ demand can be reduced without denying modern living. Investment in insulation, reducing waste, and prioritising fabric first in our construction have the dual effect of reducing fuel poverty and reducing carbon emissions and can generate economic growth through upskilling tradespeople and investing in technology.

Instead, the proposals announced so far simply mask the impact of rising prices by capping bills for repayment later and offer businesses a way of limiting costs by reducing workers’ rights.

There are huge opportunities to reduce demand in transport terms, by encouraging active travel and expanding public transport.  Winter capping of bus fares are welcome – although not relevant outside of London and those cities already capping fares to little more than £2 – but the death of Queen Elizabeth II has led to a pause in unveiling other policies that could bring welcome relief to those using trains, purchasing electric vehicles and those wanting to see the boost in active travel championed by Boris Johnson himself sustained.

This moment in time is unique, what remains to be seen is whether both the establishments of Monarchy and Parliament use this opportunity to reset.

Although Queen Elizabeth II was a steady hand, she was also a great moderniser.  The end of the Empire and the birth of the Commonwealth; the introduction of televised Royal events; the slimming down of those receiving the Sovereign Grant all changed the relationship of the Monarch with her subjects.  What will the legacy of King Charles be and how will he influence Prime Ministers as his mother surely influenced those who came before Liz Truss?

A unique moment in history, what does it mean for the environment?