Soaring living costs cloud U.N. climate talks
By Gerard Wynn
BONN, Germany (Reuters) - U.N.-led climate talks began in Germany on Monday on a global warming pact, facing a challenge from critics who say climate measures are partly to blame for high food and energy prices.
The meeting is the second in a series of eight which aim to secure a global climate deal by the end of next year in Copenhagen, to come into force after the first round of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
The talks coincide with swelling public concern about high energy and food prices. This is coupled with criticism that policies to cut greenhouse gases -- especially support for biofuels, as well as carbon taxes and emissions trading -- could make matters worse.
Racing food prices have sparked riots in developing nations such as Haiti and a record oil price has hurt motorists, prompting protests and blockades in Europe. These events, together with an economic slowdown, threaten to distract attention from climate change.
"They're absolutely right to worry about food and energy costs but not addressing climate change would probably increase both," the U.N.'s climate chief Yvo de Boer told Reuters on Monday, referring to crop damage from droughts and higher energy bills swelled by inefficiency.
De Boer rejected the suggestion that carbon-cutting biofuels should be banned, after driving up food prices by using food crops such as corn in the United States to make an ethanol alternative to gasoline.
"I think biofuels are a very important part of the solution," he said.
"If corn on a large scale leads to food shortages and an increase in food prices that's a concern but my assessment is that's not happening, on a large scale. The best solution would be for us all to become vegetarians," because grains are used to feed cattle, added the head of the UN climate agency (UNFCCC).
Another U.N. agency, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, hosts a summit this week in Rome to debate high food prices.
The Bonn meeting, which ends on June 13, follows a Bangkok session in March and April which set a timetable for the two-year talks but produced little substance for a new deal.
"Work should start here without delay ... the volume of work on the road to Copenhagen is huge and the time is short," the European Union delegation told the first session in Bonn.
Senior officials from more than 160 countries will discuss a "toolkit" of steps to fund cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases which scientists say risk catastrophic climate change, and to prepare for warming happening now or on its way.
"Small island states are already facing severe adverse impacts from climate change," the Barbados delegation said.
The present Kyoto pact caps the greenhouse gases of some 37 industrialized countries, but neither of the world's top two emitters -- the United States and China.
The main sticking point is how to split the cost of re-deploying the world's entire energy system away from fossil fuels, and especially how soon emerging economies should accept caps on their greenhouse gas emissions.
Environment ministers from the leading rich nations meeting in Japan last month urged their leaders to agree at a G8 summit in July to a global target to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but didn't suggest earlier targets.