Your Royal Highness, for decades you have been warning about damage to the natural balance of our planet. Where has this conviction to protect the environment come from and do you feel vindicated that your work is now recognized on a global scale after years of lacklustre support?
I have always been someone who prefers action to words, in the hope that I can, in some small way, help to maintain this planet for future generations. I suppose more than anything my motivation is that I do not want my children and grandchildren, or anyone else’s for that matter, saying to me "Why didn’t you do something when it was possible to make a difference and when you knew what was happening?"
As a teenager in the early 1960's, I felt deeply about the wanton destruction of so much of our natural and built environment and of the imposition of an ideology that saw progress as purely linear and mechanistic and which, in the process, discarded so much accumulated wisdom and knowledge. I felt desperately the loss of balance that this entailed, and all I have been trying to do for these past decades is to right the balance. Hence I believe it is essential that from now on we rediscover how to work in harmony with Nature, rather than against her. There needs to be a balanced and integrated approach to how we live on this planet, so that we are a part of, and not apart from, Nature and her underlying patterns of which we are a microcosm.
Whether I am vindicated or not isn’t really the point. There is no pleasure in being proved right when that means that the world finds itself facing such imminent and catastrophic danger. How I wish that we had not ended up in the position that we now find ourselves. But I have to say that, to me, it feels as if we are in the process of quite literally testing the world to destruction as we accumulate increasing evidence of the collapse of natural ecosystems all around us – ecosystems on which we all crucially depend. What would give me the greatest possible reward would be if the world took the urgent action needed, as indicated by all the science of climate change and by the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, to prevent the credit crunch rapidly becoming an infinitely more dangerous climate and ecosystems crunch.
We truly are at a defining moment in history. The threat of climate change is simply too important to ignore. However, there is still reason to believe that there is a short time left to improve the situation and achieve greater global sustainability. But I fear it is a very small window of opportunity that is left open to us…
How important were visits to the Amazonian rainforest, and other parts of the world, for you to understand the climate change issue? Would you be so kind to share a memory of such a visit that made a lasting impact on you?
Clearly, it makes a big difference to have visited rainforest countries if the impact of climate change is to be fully understood, but during the course of my life I have travelled a great deal on countless official visits and have kept my eyes and ears open, thus forming my own impressions of what was happening. I have been lucky enough to meet all sorts of people from many different fields and to pick their brains. I have seen, and heard of, many different projects that are making a big difference to people's lives and to their environments, mainly through offering an alternative, more holistic approach than the conventional form of development which, quite frankly, has often been partly the cause of the environmental disintegration we are witnessing.
This is why I have supported genuinely sustainable, "organic" farming for so long; why I have battled on behalf of small farmers and grass roots communities all around the world; why I have equally struggled for a more humane approach to the built environment that recognizes local and cultural identity, rather than the imposition of a monoculture of techno-global uglification. To meet the imminent threat of catastrophic climate change, I would suggest we need to make mainstream what has up to now been dismissed as "alternative". For instance, what made a lasting impact on me was a visit to the Permaculture Institute in the Amazon. In little more than a decade, this remarkable project has integrated agroforestry, aquaculture, and multiple animal systems within a restored landscape that had been utterly destroyed by deforestation. The whole now forms a Virtuous Circle within which all the necessary animal feed is grown and biofuels for the farm vehicles and machinery are produced. What is so deeply impressive is the practical way in which the Institute demonstrates how genuine sustainability can be achieved by applying the principles it has developed.
There is nothing "alternative" in these underlying principles. Indeed, I believe they are of the greatest importance if we are to chart a new and more stable course to live in harmony with Nature, rather than trying pointlessly to gain mastery over her. Only in this way can we hope to mitigate the terrible effects of climate change.
At the meeting of world leaders that you convened at St. James's Palace on 1st April, you presented US Secretary Hillary Clinton as well as several heads of state with the idea of Your Royal Highness’s Rainforests Project. Why should we pay billions of dollars to other nations to save their rainforest in a time of a world-wide recession?
The conservation of the world’s rainforests is absolutely crucial for the welfare not just of the Rainforest Nations themselves, but of the entire planet. Tropical deforestation is one of the major drivers of global warming. It is responsible for around seventeen per cent of world-wide carbon emissions – more than the entire global transport system combined. The rainforests provide the rainfall that helps crops grow around the world as well as helping clean the air that we breathe and absorbing carbon on a vast scale. They are also the repository of a vast array of biodiversity without which humanity cannot survive on this planet. Quite simply, they are a massive global utility helping to sustain life as we know it. Without them, humanity will struggle to survive. Therefore, we have no choice but to keep them standing, whether there is a recession or not. If we lose the rainforests, and the essential ecosystem services they provide to the planet, then the economic costs we will all face – not just those who live in the Rainforest Nations – will be far, far greater than anything we are seeing today.
As it happens, the experts agree that preserving the rainforests is one of the cheapest and quickest ways to reduce carbon emissions and to mitigate the damaging effects of global warming, thereby buying us precious time as we struggle to create genuinely low carbon economies by developing new, cleaner technologies. But such technologies are at least seven to ten years away from being implemented at scale and so we have to introduce an emergency package to save the rainforests in the meantime.
We must also not forget that some 1.4 billion of the poorest people in the world depend for their livelihoods upon the rainforests, so financial support to maintain the forests is essential to help these vulnerable communities and to establish better integrated rural development projects.
And, apart from anything else, since the developed half of the world has helped, albeit unwittingly, to bring about the problem in the first place, not only by emitting vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, but also by creating the demand for soya, palm oil and timber which is causing the rainforests to be destroyed so rapidly, it surely has to be fair that it should now help to pay for the vital services provided by the rainforests. In any case, we pay for our water, gas and electricity – now we need to see the rainforests as a giant global utility. And we must never forget that it is the health and stability of the global environment that sustains our economy and not the other way round.
How do you want to ensure that rainforest trees will soon be worth more alive than dead? And how will this help prevent climate change?
From the beginning, the aim of my Rainforests Project has been to consult as widely as possible and to seek out and develop solutions to the problem of deforestation by working with the private, public and N.G.O. sectors to create a global partnership.
Encouragingly, proposals are beginning to emerge as to how the 10-15 billion dollars per year needed to make a significant impact might be raised. One of the proposals being considered is my Project's own idea for the issuing of new, government-backed rainforest bonds which would raise money to support sustainable forms of economic development that do not involve destroying the rainforests. The bonds would be offered to the investment community and could provide companies in, for example, the pensions and insurance sectors with guaranteed returns while, at the same time, making available some of the significant resources needed to help slow down deforestation. It is perfectly possible to structure such bonds so that the repayment to the investors by governments is deferred, to everyone’s benefit, to a future date. This would be helpful to governments currently grappling with the recession. I think it is important to note that the use of a Rainforest Bond means that it would be possible to raise much larger sums from the private sector now than would ever normally be provided from traditional overseas aid budgets.
Crucially, the payments of money from the bonds would be linked to agreed targets for forest conservation and countries would only be paid if the rainforests stayed intact. This would place a substantial value on the standing forests and create strong incentives for governments, communities and individuals in Rainforest Nations to address the drivers of deforestation, while giving them the means to pursue sustainable, low-carbon development. The meeting I held at St. James's Palace a month ago with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy, Secretary Clinton and other international leaders before the G20 Summit led to an agreement to work further on these and other proposals so that they could initially be considered at the G8 meeting in July with a final assessment and, I hope, commitment to action by the time of the World Bank Annual Meeting in October. If such a commitment emerges, then I believe that it could lead to a significant and rapid reduction in tropical deforestation and the carbon emissions that that entails.
In your key note speech on climate change in Rio de Janeiro, you pointed out that the world has less than 100 months left to work against climate change. Do you fear that the current economic downturn will prevent schemes like the Rainforests Project’s to go ahead as planned?
There is a real danger that the current recession will cause a critical delay in addressing the urgent issues I have mentioned – and you only have to visit, as I did, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and to talk to its eminent team of scientists and economists, led by Professor Joachim Schellnhuber, who is a member of the Nobel Prize winning International Panel on Climate Change, to realize just how incredibly alarming the issues are.
This is why I have been devoting so much time and effort to building a global partnership between the private, public and N.G.O. sectors over the past eighteen months and why I am trying to answer these questions you have posed me. At the end of the day, if we can put together a global membership campaign that signs up not only major private sector corporations, the Media and N.G.O.’s, but also members of the public and entire communities around the world in an effort to halt rainforest deforestation, then we will make it a great deal easier for the international leaders gathered in Copenhagen in December to take the necessary decisions.
Equally, I believe there is a far greater likelihood of persuading India and China and the rest of the developing world to agree to what needs to be done to address the threat of catastrophic climate change, and the collapse of ecosystems, if the developed world acknowledges its responsibility for creating the crisis by making it possible for what the Rainforests Project is proposing – in other words, an innovative way of paying the rainforest countries for the ecosystem services they provide – to go ahead for all our sakes.
What I keep trying to convince people is that whatever difficulties the world is experiencing now as a result of the global financial crisis, they are as nothing compared to what will happen if the full effects of climate change start to materialize: war, famine, social instability and shortage of water are predicted by people far more knowledgeable than me – many of them at the Potsdam Institute. On the bright side, there is also a growing sense that many countries are beginning to see the creation of low carbon businesses as one of the best ways out of the recession – and that would be better news for climate change.
You just returned from a visit to Berlin. May we ask what was the most enjoyable part of your stay in Germany?
For me, perhaps the most enjoyable and, indeed, remarkable part of our visit was being able to stay in the rebuilt Adlon Hotel in what used to be the old East Berlin, looking out from my room at the Brandenburg Gate. For someone like myself, who was born in 1948 and who spent so much of my life during the Cold War, feeling deeply for a divided German people, witnessing the building of the Berlin Wall and visiting Berlin on many occasions to see British troops stationed there, it was not only an extraordinary experience, but also immensely heartening to see the restoration and rebuilding that has taken place since my last visit. It was also marvellous to be able to commemorate the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Allied efforts during the Berlin Airlift which helped to secure the city's future and in which my country played such an important part.