A Carbon Tax for Steak May Be the Best Way to Get People to Eat Less Meat

Changing people’s eating habits through other means has proven difficult, but raising prices could do the trick.
(Photo: Flickr)
Nov 29, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

From renewable energy to carbon sequestration to cap and trade, a lot of different ideas for arresting the change under way in the climate are going to be discussed at the upcoming international climate talks in Paris. There is, however, one carbon-producing issue that the international group would appear to deem somewhat marginal—only 21 out of 120 national plans included it in their reduction goals—but that could lead to significant cuts in emissions: meat consumption. The problem is, achieving those reductions would require a huge upending of deep-seated habits and cultural norms the world over.

The meat industry accounts for 15 percent of emissions globally—equal to the amount of greenhouse gases generated by the world’s cars. A new report published last week by Chatham House, a policy think tank in London, puts forward an expansive, sometimes aggressive road map for how countries could curb emissions by both encouraging and discouraging people from eating meat. “A shift to healthier patterns of meat-eating could bring a quarter of the emissions reductions we need to keep on track for a two-degree world,” the paper reads.

While the authors found that there was not widespread understanding of the link between dairy and meat consumption and climate change, and that efforts “to push dietary change up the political agenda are likely to face resistance,” the paper presents an impressive policy approach that considers every option short of the kitchen sink.

While public awareness campaigns and increased access to and availability of nonmeat foods are all discussed, it’s the more cudgel-like ideas—including a meat tax—that are most interesting.

But before delving into what a carbon tax system for your steak might look like, the authors show how complicated a proposition reducing meat consumption is. Not only is demand for meat expected to rise as the middle class grows around the globe—estimates say people will eat 75 percent more meat globally by 2050—but there are already a significant number of people, many of whom are poor, who only eat meat on occasion out of pure necessity. So a tax, while it would likely reduce consumption, as tariffs on soda and junk food have been shown to do, is also perceived as a measure that would disproportionately affect the poor.

And then there are the animal welfare conundrums: While some people who opt to eat less meat for environmental reasons are also concerned for the animals’ well-being and may buy grass-fed beef, for example, the report notes that emissions from such pastured animals can be higher. So should we be eating less meat, and factory-farmed meat, in order to combat climate change? That’s a solution seemingly at odds with itself—and those who argue eating beef that’s grazed in a particular way can actually capture more carbon in rangeland soils would certainly disagree.

Such conflicts make strong-arm approaches like a tax, or removing direct and secondary subsidies (such as those for farmers who grow feed) that help keep meat prices so low, more compelling.

“While softer policy approaches would naturally be favoured by most,” the authors write, “there is an implicit recognition that dietary change is likely to be achieved only by more interventionist policies that impact upon prices.”