How sugar taxes can benefit both human and planetary health

By Flora Southey

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The ICTA-UAB researchers argue the EU should be aiming for a 75.5% reduction in sugar consumption. GettyImages/PhotographyFirm
The ICTA-UAB researchers argue the EU should be aiming for a 75.5% reduction in sugar consumption. GettyImages/PhotographyFirm

Related tags sugar tax sugar reduction ethanol Biofuel

Redirecting existing sugar cropland to ethanol production can yield significant greenhouse gas emission savings, according to fresh research out of Barcelona.

Sugar taxation is growing in popularity. Within Europe alone, several countries have implemented sugar taxes or levies, including Belgium. Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, and the UK.

For the most past, these countries’ taxes apply to carbonated soft drinks containing sugar, but some have also incorporated sweetened milk, juice, and artificially sweetened beverages into the legislation.

Such taxation has been driven by public health concerns. The overconsumption of sugar has been linked to multiple health issues including diabetes and obesity.

Research​ out of the UK suggests a significant amount of sugar has been removed from consumers’ diets since the Soft Drinks Industry Levy was first announced – as much as nearly 6,500 calories from soft drinks per annum per UK resident.

Less publicised are the benefits of sugar reduction on environmental sustainability.

Yet, in a new study, researchers Lewis King and Jeroen van den Bergh from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) argue that converting existing sugar cropland for alternative uses can significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Sugar for biofuel, not consumption

Specifically, the duo is interested in switching sugar consumption to (bio)ethanol production, which could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by displacing petroleum.

Biofuels are considered an important tool in the climate change mitigation toolbox. However, they are not without risk. Biofuel production can place pressure on other targets, explained the researchers in the study, including food security, biodiversity, and the supply of affordable and reliable energy.

“It has been estimated that globally achieving not only basic needs, such as food and electricity, but also qualitative goals, such as improve life expectancy, would require a resource use two to six times beyond the level of the planetary boundaries.”

This is why King and van den Bergh are focusing on redirecting existing sugar cropland to ethanol production, rather than increasing land-use.

A recent study has suggested that final stage petroleum may have an energy return on investment (EROI) of around 8:1. From a net energy perspective, sugar cane ethanol is thought to offer a ‘fairly competitive’ replacement for petroleum.

While ethanol obtained from sugar beet has a lower EROI of around 3, it is still higher than most estimates for corn ethanol and has the minimal level arguably considered necessary to be useful to society.

Afforestation and ethanol production in Europe

As it stands, people in the EU consume around 102.1g of sugar per day. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends sugar should make up less than 10% of daily calorie intake and believes than lowering to 5% - or to 25g per day – could have ‘additional benefits’.

To limit health impacts of sugar reduction, therefore, the ICTA-UAB researchers argue the EU should be aiming for a 75.5% reduction in sugar consumption.

If this were to be achieved, it would create an excess production of 12.54Mt of sugar per annum. “Sustainability co-benefits could be realised from this excess production,” ​noted the study authors.

sugar beet fotografixx
If the EU afforested its excess sugar beet cropland, GHG could be reduced directly from the lower life-cycle emissions in the sugar industry. GettyImages/fotografixx

If the EU afforested its excess sugar beet cropland to offset GHG emissions, the researchers estimate 1.32 Mha could be freed up for afforestation – ‘arguably’ the greatest carbon mitigation potential. In this scenario, GHG emissions would be reduced directly from the lower life-cycle emissions in the sugar industry and indirectly, through forest carbon sequestration, they explained.

“Forestation of agricultural lands can also improve biodiversity, nutrient cycling and water cycling.”

The EU afforestation scenario would result in a mean net reduction of 9.74 Mt CO2e per year.

beet sugar ollo
Ethanol obtained from sugar beet has an energy return on investment (EROI) of around 3:1. GettyImages/ollo

If the EU used its 12.54 Mt/yr excess sugar beet production for ethanol purposes, it could expect to produce 3.26-6.52 megatonnes of oil equivalent of ethanol from the extra 1.32 Mha dedicated to its production, estimate the researchers.

In this scenario, directl life-cycle emissions from sugar production woould decrease in line with the EU afforestation scenario, but these would be offset by the life-cycle emissions associated with ethanol production.

“However, indirect emission reductions will also be realised through displaced petroleum demand and its associated life-cycle emissions,” ​they continued, adding that no land use, land use change and forestry emission changes are assumed given that the same quantity of cropland would still be in use.

This scenario would be except to yield higher savings of 20.11Mt CO2e per year.

The Brazil ethanol scenario

The third scenario investigated by the King and van den Bergh they coin the ‘Brazil ethanol scenario’. If the EU continues to produce as much sugar as it is currently, but exports the 12.54 Mt excess instead of consuming it domestically, this would lead to lower global demand.

Brazil, in turn, would reduce its sugar production by 12.54 Mt, which would allow for this freed-up land to be used for ethanol production.

Under this scenario, Brazilian GHG emissions from sugar production would decrease, but these would similarly be offset by those associated with the increased ethanol production. As per the previous scenario, there would also be an indirect decline in GHG life-cycle emissions from displaced petroleum.

This scenario, whereby Brazil produces ethanol instead of the EU, was found to be roughly twice as effective at reducing emissions, explain the researchers, with total emissions reductions thought to represent 4.3% of the EU transport sector.

Sugar tax for processed foods

All of these scenarios are underpinned by a significant decrease in sugar consumption across the bloc.

But despite continual public health messaging about the negative health impacts of excess sugar consumption, intake per capita has remained ‘remarkably flat’ in the EU over the last 40 years.

This is where sugar taxation can come into play, suggest the researchers, and not just in sugar sweetened beverages. Sugar taxes would need to be implemented across other categories of processed foods to achieve the ‘full effect’, they argue.

“Incrementally increasing [sugar reduction] and high taxation rates can play a role in achieving the reduction goal, combined with additional policies aimed at achieving widespread behavioural change, such as information campaigns, regulation of advertising or product labels.”

sugar AndreyPopov
Sugar taxes would need to be implemented across other categories of processed foods, and not just for sugar sweetened beverages, argue the researchers. GettyImages/AndreyPopov

The researchers believe that tackling climate change indirectly, through linking it to health concerns, may present an effective complement to ‘traditional instruments’ which still face political hurdles.

“Framing climate change around public health has also been shown to contribute to the public support for and political feasibility of proposed policies.

“Sugar taxation offers a concrete and practical example of how this can be achieved with careful policy design.”

Source: Nature Sustainability
‘Sugar taxation for climate and sustainability goals’
Published 25 July 2022
Authors: Lewis C. King and Jeroen van den Bergh

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