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ROBERT HARDMAN:  Cop26’s Stella attraction? The Prince who started it all

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The Prince of Wales is striding through the main hall of the Cop26 monster-summit, en route to yet another reception. His turquoise linen face mask (a gift from weavers in Myanmar) is fooling no one.

People recognise him instantly and begin snapping away on their phones. TV crews and photographers latch on. 

One or two delegates start exchanging a few words with the Prince and he is happy to chat, so I join in.

I ask him if he can remember his very first public eco-utterance. ‘Oh yes, I’d just been asked to be chairman of a countryside committee for Wales and I’d seen this amazing scheme for trapping methane from a landfill site,’ he laughs. 

People recognise him instantly and begin snapping away on their phones. TV crews and photographers latch on. The Prince of Wales is pictured with designer and sustainability advocate Stella McCartney

People recognise him instantly and begin snapping away on their phones. TV crews and photographers latch on. The Prince of Wales is pictured with designer and sustainability advocate Stella McCartney

‘I made a speech trying to make people interested. Of course, no one paid the slightest bit of attention.’

That was in 1970 when the Prince was 21 – just three years older than teen eco-warrior Greta Thunberg is now. And he hasn’t really stopped since. So the last few days must have been something of a vindication for a man so often painted as an amiable eccentric.

There is certainly a spring in his step as he wanders around this summit. Here, everyone from the politicians and boffins crammed inside this giant super-spreader event to the warbling hippies and Thunberg stormtroopers banging on the steel fence outside acknowledges that the Prince has been a key player.

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson saluted the Prince in front of the world leaders: ‘l just want to say you’re a prophet without honour and you’ve been right for a very long time.’

Those same world leaders have been beating a path to his door all week, albeit the door to a rather dreary prefab box called ‘Meeting Room D’ in the VVIP inner sanctum of this vast tented complex. 

It’s a symphony in low-lit beige with half a dozen chairs, but the Prince has done his best to make it homely with a few woodland scenes on the prefab walls.

There will always be those who think it is pretty rich of a Prince with several homes to lecture the rest of us on carbon emissions as he flies all over the world and drives around in motorcades

There will always be those who think it is pretty rich of a Prince with several homes to lecture the rest of us on carbon emissions as he flies all over the world and drives around in motorcades

Over the course of a few hours, I counted them in and counted them out again – the Prime Minister of Australia followed by the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone followed by the President of Namibia followed by the Prime Minister of Jamaica (bearing handsome gifts of framed postage stamps)… All received warm pleasantries before the Prince sat them down and picked up his big folder of briefing notes. Then the cameras (and I) were shown the door and it was down to business.

Afterwards, I asked the Australian PM, Scott Morrison, what they had been discussing for half an hour. ‘He’s got a deep, granular knowledge,’ he said, ‘so we were talking about climate finance, some Pacific island projects, some new housing projects in Australia.’ No one said Cop26 had to be fun.

Next up was Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, whose country faces an existential threat from climate change. The Prince greeted her like a long-lost friend – which she sort of is after running her Commonwealth nation for 17 years. ‘You’ve written me such nice letters,’ he told her.

She introduced her daughter, Saima, who has worked with the British Asian Trust, of which the Prince is the founding patron. Wheels within wheels. They soon got down to business. The Prince began with an apology. 

‘I just wish I could have come to your 50th,’ he told Sheikh Hasina, referring not to her age (she’s 74) but her country’s half-century.

There will always be those who think it is pretty rich of a Prince with several homes to lecture the rest of us on carbon emissions as he flies all over the world and drives around in motorcades.

His staff simply point out that the big trips are at the behest of the Government (like his upcoming visit to celebrate 100 years of Jordan).

Here, everyone from the politicians and boffins crammed inside this giant super-spreader event to the warbling hippies and Thunberg stormtroopers banging on the steel fence outside acknowledges that the Prince has been a key player

Here, everyone from the politicians and boffins crammed inside this giant super-spreader event to the warbling hippies and Thunberg stormtroopers banging on the steel fence outside acknowledges that the Prince has been a key player

Yet, he can teach a thing or two to the other leaders gathered in Glasgow this week, where I have been trailing after him for a few days.

For a start, he is still actually here. By yesterday morning, most VIPs had climbed aboard their private jets and legged it, leaving their officials to crunch the numbers. The Prince will still be in Glasgow for the rest of the week, commuting from his home at Dumfries House. It’s not all earnest chats about climate financing or the ‘circular bio-economy alliance’.

Yesterday, he was out and about, presenting his Terra Carta sustainability awards and inspecting sustainable fashion by the designer Stella McCartney. If the sight of the heir to the throne in one of his trusty old Savile Row suits chatting to Miss McCartney about her vegan handbags – made from laboratory-grown mushroom leather, if you please – was not incongruous enough, then up popped the Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Unlike the average celeb, for whom climate ‘activism’ entails a few vapid, preachy tweets, the Oscar-winner has genuine form in this regard having funded dozens of conservation projects over the years. He spent ten minutes with the Prince in a corner of the room in deep conversation.

Today, the Prince is championing electric delivery vans. Tomorrow, it’s electric trains. And when he does move on, he may be the only VIP to leave Glasgow by electric car rather than plane (heading for Balmoral, whence he will return to London next week by train).

His main message all week has been one of carrot rather than stick. As he explains in speech after speech, we can’t expect governments to blow their budgets trying to solve climate change using taxpayers’ money alone. Rather, they need to incentivise the private sector by creating fresh investment opportunities. To that end, he has enrolled 300 companies, managing assets of $60trillion, into his Sustainable Markets Initiative and is making progress.

As I learned this week, he does not like gaps in the schedule (this is, after all, a man who won’t eat lunch). After the Prince had just finished another bilateral chat, one of his people spotted Justin Trudeau of Canada enjoying a Cornish cream tea in the leaders’ lounge. Their respective teams had failed to find diary space for a cosy chat, so a Clarence House official sidled up and asked if the Canadian might like a chat, well, right now. Mr Trudeau immediately stopped pondering whether the jam should go before the cream and put down his scone.

‘I hope I haven’t disturbed your lunch,’ said the Prince. Mr Trudeau was only too happy to have some private time with the next King of Canada – and vice versa. It had been Mr Trudeau who delivered the speech of thanks at last weekend’s G20 meeting in Rome after the Prince had addressed that summit. This had been a pretty extraordinary moment in itself. The G20 does not normally invite unelected non-heads of state within its ranks. The Prince had been a one-off.

Next up, was the Prime Minister of Vietnam who was so overwhelmed that he asked if he might have permission to put his arm around the Prince – and did. Suddenly, a call came through from the White House to see if the Prince might have time for a one-on-one with President Joe Biden. 

So the royal team hoofed it upstairs to the US meeting room. A TV microphone picked up some of the chat before the two men retreated to a corner (minus officials).

The Prince did his usual ‘I hope I’m not taking up too much time’ thing, whereupon Biden went into full backslap mode. ‘We need you badly,’ he told the Prince. ‘You kept this whole thing going. That’s how it all started.’

This was not flattery. This colossal £250million Cop shindig all started with something called the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. And that might not have succeeded in the way it did if the Prince had not organised his own Rio summit on board the Royal Yacht the year before. 

Back in 1991, he brought together politicians, including the President of Brazil and future US vice-president Al Gore, plus big names in the oil industry and the green movement. Between them, over two days, they established some basic principles to avoid a rich vs poor schism at the Earth Summit. It worked.

So what does the Prince recall of his own mini Cop on board Britannia? ‘It was just getting so critical to gather people together,’ he recalls as we march through the melee. ‘At least it was a start.’

Earlier, I followed him out of his beige box as he went off to join Boris Johnson at a reception for all the Commonwealth leaders. The PM was noisily saluting Commonwealth solidarity – ‘I am filled to the gills with Indian vaccine!’ – and reminded everyone that the 1987 Commonwealth summit in Vancouver had been the first to get some sort of grip on climate change.

The Prince had not been due to speak but took to the stage anyway to ram home his point about unlocking private-sector trillions. Then, as future Head of the Commonwealth, he worked the entire room.

Britain’s Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford, noted that the Prince was among the last to leave. ‘He’s got a huge amount of energy,’ she added. ‘He is a unique asset at a gathering like this.’

Ten days from now, the Prince will turn 73 – the same age as the Queen at the turn of the millennium. She has been much missed this week, as every leader has reminded the Prince.

But he has been anything but a substitute here. Some nations have made an effort this week, others have shown they don’t really care.

To the British public, footing the bill for this colossal party, it may stick in the craw that we are being urged to abandon our miners and our North Sea oil and gas industries while others merrily go on digging and drilling.

There are no easy answers to any of it. But if one person has done more than most to crack the conundrum, it has been the man holding court in Meeting Room D.

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