Adam Briggs will be the first to tell you that going cold turkey isn’t easy in a world that loves turkey. A public health researcher at the University of Oxford, Briggs knows that eating meat contributes to global warming, deforestation and a host of other environmental problems, so he tries to avoid it. But when a friend invites him over and serves pot roast or shepherd’s pie, he’ll indulge.
“I don’t want anything to go to waste,” says Briggs. “Plus there’s no doubt that meat can taste great.”
Giving up meat is a challenge relatively few people are prepared to meet — only about three percent of Americans adults, or 7.3 million people, are vegetarians. Not only do we like meat, we eat a lot of it, especially in the United States and Europe: The average American consumes nearly 200 pounds a year while their European counterpart devours 140 pounds annually.
But that adds up in more ways than one: farmed livestock is responsible for nearly 15 percent of total carbon emissions every year — the same amount of greenhouse gases all the vehicles in the world emit from their tailpipes.
But Briggs has a radical idea that he says offers the best hope of easing meat’s contribution to climate change. He is among a small group of academics pushing to tax all food items based on the emissions they cause. The aim: to encourage people to eat less carbon-intensive foods.
The tax he proposes is no small one, either. Briggs and his colleagues say a levy of perhaps $1.20 per pound of lamb or beef, for example, would help persuade many people to switch to eating more white meat or fruits and vegetables. Cattle and sheep ranching are major targets of climate campaigners because those two animals typically produce large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, due to how they digest their food.
The aim of his food tax, Briggs says, isn’t to force people to stop eating meat altogether but, rather, to encourage them to eat less. “If everybody ate meat one time less a week, reduced their portion size by 20 percent or switched from red to white meat, then there could be really meaningful population-level changes to emissions,” he says.
Could a carbon food tax ever really happen? Many think it’s unlikely. Even Briggs says the world isn’t ready — yet. “It’s not something that’s going to be implemented anytime soon,” he says, “but hopefully it starts a debate.”
To get a sense of the hurdles a carbon-based food tax would face, consider the fate of a much simpler idea: taxing fuels based on their relative contributions to global warming. Economists for years have embraced carbon fuel taxes as the fairest and most efficient way to slow climate change, but governments have faced huge resistance to imposing such taxes. To date, only a handful of countries have implemented carbon energy taxes.
Despite all the opposition it has triggered, though, a carbon fuel tax at least has the advantage of relating directly to measurable emissions that clearly contribute to climate change. For agriculture, the connections are more indirect. “This [food] carbon tax is ridiculous. When you talk about carbon and beef … the link isn’t that simple,” says David Zilberman, an expert in agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Berkeley.
But proponents of the tax say ignoring agriculture isn’t an option when it comes to dealing with climate change.
The world currently emits the equivalent of 49 gigatons of carbon annually, a level that must fall by more than half (to 23 gigatons) if global temperature rise is to be curbed at two degrees Celsius by 2050. Yet, “if meat and dairy consumption continues to rise at current rates, the agricultural sector alone will soak up 20 gigatons of the yearly limit in 2050,” writes Anthony Froggatt, a specialist in energy and environmental issues, in his report for the London-based think tank Chatham House. He and his colleagues were the first to propose taxing carbon-intensive foods in November of last year, slightly before Briggs did in February.
One of the biggest hurdles, advocates acknowledge, is that there’s no simple way to identify the relative carbon footprint of various foods. In his research, Briggs used life-cycle assessments of foods to determine how carbon-friendly they were. The assessments, also called cradle-to-grave analyses, look at all stages of a product’s life — how it was reared or grown, the land and water it required, how it was slaughtered or harvested and then transported — to determine its overall environmental impact.
But the variability of these impacts can be immense, says Gary Adamkiewicz, an specialist in environmental health at Harvard University. For example, pasture-raised cattle will have a larger carbon footprint than their feedlot-raised counterparts because they require more grazing land. Calculations also get more complicated when foods are sold processed rather than fresh, because additional fuel and resources are used up in the manufacturing process.
“There’s a lot of promise in thinking about taxation,” says Adamkiewicz. “But the devil’s in the details around how you structure such a tax.”
There are also concerns that such sales taxes are regressive, which means that anyone buying red meat would be charged a higher price, regardless of their income. Not being able to afford meat could have social implications, says Catherine Happer, a sociology lecturer at the University of Glasgow. “In Brazil, for example, increasing the price of meat might lead to those at the poorest end of society being excluded from very important cultural and social activities such as barbeques.”
A climate-focused food tax might be especially unpopular, she says, because relatively few people even understand the connection. “The impact of meat consumption on climate change is not something the majority have thought about.”
Since there’s so little public awareness, any politician who embraces the idea of a food tax runs the risk of being seen as intruding into voters’ personal lives with little justification. “Governments don’t want to be seen as a nanny state telling people what to do,” says Chatham House’s Froggatt.
Some countries have tried to impose food taxes for social ends, to mixed results. Mexico saw its sales of sugary drinks fall by 12 percent a year after it introduced a 10 percent soda tax in 2014. Denmark, on the other hand, rescinded a tax on saturated fat in November 2012, only a year after implementing it. Its failure may hold lessons for a future food carbon tax: Administrative costs can be huge, job losses may result and consumers may shop in neighboring tax-free jurisdictions.
Then there’s the notoriously difficult problem of changing people’s mindsets and behaviors. People are more concerned about their health than the environment’s, says Froggatt, so convincing people to accept a food carbon tax will require emphasizing its potential health benefits. For example, fruits and vegetables are both low-carbon and nutritious.
But for every basket of berries, there’s a strawberry shortcake waiting to be had. “Some foodstuff can be low in greenhouse gas emissions but bad for you,” says Briggs. “Sugar is a key example.”
One way to get around that problem is to introduce an accompanying tax on sugary goods like soda. Briggs estimates a combined tax would have roughly the same impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. as a food tax alone — the equivalent of more than 18,000 kilotons of carbon dioxide, or the emissions from 80,000 Boeing 747 flights from New York to London a year — with the additional benefit of saving 900 more lives.
More education about nutritional benefits as well as the connection between meat consumption and climate may help build support for a carbon food tax — eventually. Says Harvard’s Adamkiewicz, “It may take a while for people to embrace the idea of a climate-focused diet.”