Tax beef 40% and milk 20% to cut carbon and save lives, say scientists

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Tax cows to cut climate change. © iStock/Pelooyen
Tax cows to cut climate change. © iStock/Pelooyen

Related tags: Nutrition

 A carbon levy on foods could help slash greenhouse gas emissions by a billion tonnes and save half a million lives, according to the first global analysis of the policy.

Meat and dairy products would be taxed hardest due to their higher emissions, whilst the price of vegetable oils would also increase significantly. By contrasts, the price of fruits, vegetables and sugar would change very little (see table).

Beef, for example, would need to be 40% more expensive to account for the significant emissions during production, including those from deforestation. This hefty price tag would however lead to a 13% reduction in consumption.

“If you’d have to pay 40% more for your steak, you might choose to have it once a week instead of twice,” ​said lead author, Dr Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin School on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford.

Pricing milk 21% higher and lamb 15% would also result in consumption falling 8% and 6% respectively. The surcharge on vegetable oils appears high, at 25%, but the commodities tend to be low value.

All these additional charges could result in consumption of high carbon foods falling by around 10%, which would also have health benefits, noted the team in a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change​.

These amount to about half a million lives saved per year in 2020 due to lower consumption of red meat, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, and a decrease in the number of people who are overweight or obese, the explained.

“… We found that the health benefits from tax-related reductions in obesity could outweigh the health losses from increased numbers of underweight people in three-quarters of all regions, and that tax-related reductions in red meat consumption would confer additional health benefits that outweigh health losses from reductions in the consumption of other food groups.”

This runs contrary to concerns that such a policy would negatively impact food and nutrition. However, consideration would need to be given to ensuring the carbon tax didn’t impact negatively on low-income countries, in particular Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, as well as low-income segments within countries.

The researchers, based both at the University of Oxford and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, therefore assessed the possibility of selectively compensating for income losses associated with tax-related price increases or using a portion of tax revenues for health promotion.

These options could help avert “most of the negative health impacts experienced by vulnerable groups, whilst still promoting changes towards diets which are more environmentally sustainable”, ​they concluded.

To date, food production and consumption have been excluded from climate policies. Governmentsfear a publish backlash​, but there are also concerns about the potential impact on food security

“Food prices are a sensitive topic,” ​admitted Dr Springmann, but “…we show that pricing foods according to their climate impacts could not only lead to lower emissions, but also to healthier diets in almost all countries around the world.”

Countries are meeting this week in Marrakech to discuss how to deliver the Paris Agreement on climate change. The global deal came into force last week​, but the commitments to date fall far short of the emissions reductions required to keep temperature rises below 2o​C. 

Controversial but effective

How a tax on high carbon foods impacts consumption.

Commodity

Price change é

Consumption change ê

Beef

40%

13%

Oils

25%

9%

Milk

21%

8%

Lamb

15%

6%

Poultry

8%

2%

Other grains

8%

2%

Rice

8%

3%

Wheat

8%

3%

Pork

7%

2%

Maize

6%

2%

Eggs

5%

1%

Oil crops

2%

1%

Vegetables

2%

1%

Sugar

2%

1%

Legumes

1%

<1%

Roots

1%

<1%

Fruits (tropical)

1%

1%

Fruits (temperate)

<1%

<1%

 

Source: Nature Climate Change

First published online 8 November, 2016​ doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3155

“Mitigation potential and global health impacts from emissions pricing of food commodities”

Authors: Springmann, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Robinson, S., et al

 

 

 

Related topics: Policy

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