John Prescott was recently appointed honorary patron of the university’s China Policy Institute, and visited Nottingham to give a talk on China and climate change. Impact spoke to him beforehand to discuss his work with China, climate change, and the end of his career as an MP.

He stressed the importance of getting China on board in order to reach an effective and fair agreement to tackle carbon emissions: “China can play an important role in reducing poverty and reducing climate change… You cannot have a global agreement without China”. Considering the recent furore surrounding what was seen by many as a lack of co-operation by China at the Copenhagen summit, it was surprising to hear Prescott defending China’s actions, and utter a sentence rarely spoken by politicians: “I think we made a mistake there”.

China has recently surpassed the USA in carbon emissions, but Prescott argued that were the emissions measured per capita rather that by nation, China’s were in fact lower that the USA’s. He said that the European countries and the USA had not been ready enough to take into account China’s expanding economy and infrastructure, as well as their larger population. He said any agreement reached had to be about social justice, with an equitable application of cuts and regulations. “We need to treat all countries fairly, with common but differentiating responsibilities.” He believes a per capita measurement of emissions is crucial for this, especially as developing countries are likely “to rely more on primary energy sources”.

He was fast to point out how important an issue climate change is for him, saying that he’s missing the upcoming general election in order to go to a climate change conference. He was the European negotiator at the Kyoto conference; he summed up the difficulties of coming to global compromises, saying “Climate change is a science, but the application of [preventative measures] is an art”. Nonetheless he praised Al Gore’s role in the conference, and regretted that the recent climate summit had been less successful.

He said that his interest in global politics was sparked by his days as a merchant seaman, when he “saw real poverty and disparities in wealth, which is what the global economy is really all about”. He believes it’s important that any climate change deal is fair to developing countries; “We can’t say to less developed countries, ‘we polluted the world so you can’t expand’… But it is neither necessary nor inevitable that cutting CO2 emissions leads to less growth in the economy… We need to get different deals with different countries, as they have different levels of economic development”. He did seemingly imply that not enough had been done to protect developing countries, despite the fact that the Copenhagen Accord pledged $30 billion dollars over the next three years in order to help poor countries adapt to climate change, and also favoured payment from developed countries to aid the reduction of deforestation and degradation in developing countries. Nonetheless he strongly emphasised that the richer, more powerful regions – particularly Europe and the USA – should take the majority of burden in cutting carbon emissions. He also sees a need to “raise the level of consciousness” on climate change in general.

Coming to the end of a 40-year career as an MP, Impact asked Prescott what he felt his proudest achievement had been. In answer, he pulled out from his wallet a pledge card from the 1997, showing a much younger Prescott – “everyone laughs at the picture now, but that’s not the point!” He said his greatest achievement was that each pledge on the back of that card had been fulfilled by the Labour government. He acknowledged that he’d often done this before (a breakdown of these pledges by Channel 4 can be found here), but he maintains that being part of a government that has delivered on its promises is far more important than anything he’s done as an individual.

He said that Nottinghamshire was an important battleground for Labour in the upcoming election. He noted that voter turnout had fallen over the last few years, attributing this to complacency: “Lots of people just thought, Labour will get in again, and didn’t see voting as that important”. He urges any Labour voters who have not come out in the past few elections to make their vote count this year. Whether this reasoning has a factual basis is debateable; Prescott gives the impression of being somewhat nostalgic for Labour’s heyday of the late 90s. However he insists that stepping down as an MP will not mean a cessation of involvement in politics, and intends to continue his commitment to tackling climate change in his life after government.

Lucy Hayes and Justine Moat

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