The Deputy Prime Minister's 30,000-mile odyssey - his second trip this month - is a last minute attempt to save international negotiations on controlling climate change that open in Kyoto tomorrow. The two journeys have covered enough miles to girdle the earth twice, and a week ago he spent three consecutive nights on different planes.
Mr Prescott's planetary shuttle diplomacy is part of an unprecedented push by three of the Government's four most senior figures to try to make the talks succeed. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has made combating global warming a centre piece of Britain's foreign policy. And Tony Blair is personally contacting other heads of government and will this week hold a seminar in No. 10 to persuade businessmen of the benefits of cutting the pollution that causes global warming.
No British government has ever made such a determined top-level effort on any environmental issue. Dr Michael Grubb, the respected head of energy and the environment at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said yesterday he had never seen such a level of commitment. "The Government's actions are both welcome and essential," he said. "They have picked the right issue, one of the key challenges of the next century."
Mr Prescott's tour - which he says is designed "to create momentum to get the agreement that is so vital in Kyoto" - began 10 days ago on Thursday 20 November with an overnight flight to Delhi. After just seven hours in India, where he saw the Prime Minister and environment minister, he took another overnight flight to Tokyo.
During another seven-hour stop-over, he met the head of the Japanese Environment Agency and then spent his third night running in an aeroplane seat on the way to New Zealand. After yet another round of meetings he finally found a bed at Wellington's Park Royal Hotel.
After seeing both the acting Prime Minister and the Prime Minister-elect of the country - which is one of the few yet to set a target for restraining emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming - he was in the air again for Australia, the most recalcitrant nation of all: its Prime Minister said last week it could do no better than increase the pollution by 18 per cent by the year 2010.
He met the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, the environment minister, the leader of the opposition and eight of his shadow cabinet, as well as addressing a UK Business Forum Conference and inspecting Sydney's transport system. But on Friday he had a day off, satisfying his passion for diving at Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef, before heading off yesterday on yet another overnight flight to London.
At the beginning of this month he took a 17,000-mile round trip to Japan, via Washington, where he saw Vice-President Al Gore, and on Friday he will set off for the Kyoto conference.
Meanwhile Tony Blair has called President Clinton several times, plans to ring President Yeltsin, and is to raise the issue with the Brazilian President who visits London this week.
Their strategy is to break the impasse between the United States and developing countries. The US Senate voted by 99-0 early this year not to ratify any agreement made in Kyoto that does not include promises from developing countries to contain their own emissions of carbon dioxide. It points out that some Third World countries are growing so fast, that their emissions will eventually exceed those of industrialised countries.
The Third World retorts that it will not move until the United States, much the biggest polluter, makes a serious commit- ment to reduce emissions. They point out that the industrialised countries have caused the problem in the first place and that two years ago they, including the US, agreed to make the first move.
Mr Prescott is needing all his old trade union negotiating experience to try to exploit what he calls "a window of credibility" that could open up between the making of a Kyoto agreement and the time, some two years hence, when it would come before the Senate. He says that developed countries must first show their seriousness in making cuts - "showing the colour of their money, if you like" - and then developed countries should make their own commitments. During this period the two sides could develop ways of working together, perhaps by rich countries financing anti-pollution measures in Third World countries more cost effectively than at home.
It is delicate wheeler-dealing, to finesse a deal so that each side is assured of the other's good faith. But Mr Prescott told the Independent on Sunday from Australia last week that "nobody wants to be blamed for a breakdown at Kyoto," and that his "window" idea had been received "very favourably" by all the leaders he met.
Just for a change, when he lands today, he will start grappling with a thorny issue of local government finance.Reuse content