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Current Economic Growth Model Is 'Immoral', Says Prescott

With the world's population growing to nine billion by 2050, Britain's former deputy PM predicts far more crucial and complex talks in Copenhagen than in Kyoto

by Jonathan Watts

John Prescott, the former UK climate negotiator, called on developed nations today to accept a new model of economic growth that would create a more equitable spread of carbon emissions in the world. Speaking to the Guardian in Beijing, Prescott said talks at Copenhagen would probably not be decided until an 11th-hour crisis, but that no global consensus could be reached without a fairer spread of emissions.

Talking populations … John Prescott in China earlier this year. (Photograph: Guardian) Since helping to bang heads together to set the first targets on carbon in Kyoto in 1997, Prescott said the world had started to develop a new model of restraint.

"The reality is that the world has found a rationing process. It is not ... get growth as fast as you can and get the jobs and sod the rest," he said. "The world will have 9 billion people by 2050. If you still want growth and prosperity, do you keep on the model you have now? It's immoral."

Prescott has no say in the final decision this time but will attend the talks in Copenhagen as a rapporteur for the Council of Europe, allowing him to be a vocal observer. His remarks address a core issue: how to allow developing nations such as China and India to grow their economies and lift billions from poverty without generating enormous greenhouse gas emissions, as past growth in the developed world did.

But his experience as a former deputy prime minister and key figure in the Kyoto talks sheds light on some of the problems that are likely to lie ahead of negotiators in Denmark in December.

He said Kyoto was about setting a framework, whereas Copenhagen is an attempt to get every country involved. Although the US and China are now far more involved and the science is more widely accepted this time, he believed negotiations will be "10 times harder" than those of 1997 because more countries are taking part and the issues are more complex.

A deal will depend on a last minute display of political will, he predicted.

"The deal at Kyoto came when politicians sat down and faced the reality that we were we going to have a breakdown (of talks)," recalled Prescott. He said he and the Japanese, European and American negotiators huddled in the early hours to achieve a breakthrough. "We got together in a room. I rang Al Gore (the then US vice president) and said we were closing the hall soon because they are going to have a wedding. The Japanese said, 'We will go one point more, so long as it is less than America. And the Americans said we will go for one point more providing it is lower than Europe. At which point I said if we have to take the moral stand then we will."

Prescott has since been accused of giving too much ground at Kyoto, but he said compromise would probably be necessary again if a deal is to be secured. He also emphasised that any deal must be seen to be equitable.

"If we are deciding a global formula not to suffer consequences of climate change, we had better make it fair to achieve a consensus because that is the key at the end of day. "

Although, he said, none of the nations are showing their hands yet, he predicted politicians would have to find an agreement.

"The science is so clear. For policymakers to just walk away from that would be disastrous. I can't believe they will do it."

In line with many developing nations, Prescott says targets should be set according to emissions per person rather than percentage cuts from past levels, as was the case in Kyoto. If wealthy citizens try to maintain their high-polluting nations, he predicted a political crisis.

Although his time as UK transport secretary saw a massive expansion of car ownership, Prescott said he had called on China to do more to promote public transport and limit traffic congestion.

Tomorrow, Prescott will travel to the southern Chinese city of Xiamen, where he will receive an honour that runs against his UK reputation as a mangler of language. " I am a little bit embarrassed. I am going to Xiamen university, where they will make me an honorary professor, which will create a lot of comment in Britain."

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