Prince Charles
Image credit: Dan Marsh / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Prince Charles’ ode to private markets at COP26 was a clarion call for agtech

November 3, 2021

The opening speeches of the World Leaders Summit at COP26 in Glasgow, the UK on Monday were an amalgam of emotional calls to the world to bring down greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet.

Famed UK naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough put on the best performance, asking the audience: “Is this how our story is due to end? A tale of the smartest species doomed by that all-too-human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?”

But it was Prince Charles’ speech that impressed me the most.

Far more pragmatic and direct in its nature than most of the other speeches from political and business figures, the heir to the UK throne offered real direction for combating climate change, calling on the private sector to take the lead.

With “trillions of dollars at its disposal […] far beyond global GDP,” the private sector offered “the only real prospect of achieving fundamental transition” away from the fossil fuel economy to one that’s renewable and sustainable, he said. Many nation states simply can’t afford it, and individual actions alone will not suffice for the “systems-level” change that’s needed, the prince added.

He also hit on other exciting and important – if slightly buzzwordy – concepts in agrifoodtech, calling for a restoration of “natural capital,” the acceleration of “nature-based solutions,” and a “leveraging of the circular bio-economy.”

“After billions of years of evolution, nature is our best teacher,” Prince Charles said.

And he should know. In addition to being Prince of Wales, he is Duke of Cornwall, overseeing a vast 200-square mile fief concentrated in rural Southwest England with most of its (officially tax-exempt) income coming from land management, and with offshoot businesses working in agrifood production. He has even experimented with climate technologies on his own car; his Aston Martin convertible runs on biofuel from surplus English white wine and whey from the cheesemaking process.

Prince Charles also been vocal in his call for family farmers to come together to pursue sustainable practices.

But his speech at COP26 also highlighted the deep level of research he has undertaken with the private sector over the past two years to create a framework for combating climate change.

He referenced consultations with 300 CEOs in the creation of his sustainable markets initiative ‘Terra Carta.’ These CEOs, he said, had called for clear strategies within each sector — from agriculture to energy to health to fashion — to speed up the commercialization of innovations. Pointing to the coronavirus pandemic and the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines, he said that we now know the ability of the private sector to speed up timelines dramatically when it comes to pressing global issues.

Private market investors would be expected to front most of the investment in what Prince Charles said will be a “pipeline of sustainable and bankable projects at a sufficient scale.” However, the royal also underscored the need for governments and public bodies to help de-risk these investments by working with industry players “so they have the confidence to invest without goalposts suddenly moving.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that the private sector is ready to play its part and work with governments to find a path forward,” he said.

While this approach won’t sound especially ground-breaking for private investors and innovators in the agrifoodtech ecosystem, it was a welcome break from the many vagueries and platitudes offered by other leaders who mostly focused on outlining the challenge and magnitude of the problems it presents.

If this is our “last, best chance,” as Attenborough and many others say it is, Prince Charles’ well-researched and well-grounded approach — backed by his belief in natural systems — is worth taking seriously.

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