The Case For A Meat Tax

It could cut greenhouse gas emissions in a big way.

A lot of the talk around fighting climate change is focused on big business and the auto industry. But what about meat? 

The livestock sector generates nearly 15 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That footprint is roughly equivalent to the one created by cars, planes, trains and boats combined: Transportation produces around 14 percent of global emissions.

Though public awareness of the environmental effects of meat and dairy consumption is relatively lower, a new report suggests that people are willing to adopt financial incentives, like a meat tax, that would encourage them to shift their diets away from those items.

Researchers at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute, surveyed people across 12 countries and focus groups in Brazil, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, and found that many would welcome a food charge if it helped alleviate high emissions levels -- though concerns about costs and alternatives to meat remain.

The report cautions that consumer knowledge alone won't be enough to cut back on these emissions. The push will have to come from government policy and business coalitions, including retailers and producers in the food supply chain.

"You only see the impact on consumer behavior when you put additional incentives," said Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at the institute who co-authored the study. A meat tax, in addition to helping curb emissions, could also benefit people's health and generate tax revenue.

Less visibility might explain why people are more attuned to the environmental impact of their cars, for example, than their meals. Refilling a gas tank over a lifetime reinforces the connection between a driver and gas pollutants, while most people's initial reaction to emissions resulting from food is centered on packaging, not the consumption itself, Froggatt said.

Participants in focus groups reported limited access to meat alternatives, which also tend be more expensive. "There's concern about prices and the impact on poorer people," Froggatt said. Unless alternatives are easily available, something like a meat tax would be "detrimental," he added.

The researchers say that stores and schools could lead the way in raising awareness of these foods. Offering fruit and vegetables at the front of a supermarket, for example, could significantly boost shoppers' likelihood of selecting something other than meat or dairy. The government could also provide subsidies for plant-based foods to support low-income households.

With the COP21 climate talks set to begin in Paris next week, many expect the participating countries to reach a global agreement about curbing carbon emissions. Some of the world's biggest polluters, including the U.S. and India, have already made reduction commitments for 2020.

But a deal on meat consumption is unlikely to be on the table. As of last month, only 21 of the national proposals include commitments to reducing livestock emissions.

"This is very low on the policy agenda," Froggatt said. "But part of the discussion will be what do we do next, and how do we increase our ambition. We hope diet is given greater consideration. Attention placed on the food sector is overdue."