(Photo: Dan Burn-Forti/Getty Images)
How much extra should you be paying for your hamburger to compensate for all the damage that all-beef patty is doing to our climate? How about 40 percent more?
That’s the figure put forth this week by a team of British and American researchers in a provocative study that argues we should be putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to addressing the significant amount of global warming pollution generated by food production—especially livestock.
About a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from raising food, and much of it can be tied to the production of meat. The global beef industry is particularly egregious, from its massive clearing of carbon-storing forests to the cattle’s odious production of methane, which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon.
As such, the authors of the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, propose what would essentially be a 40 percent carbon tax on beef. Taking into account the climate effects of other types of foods, the researchers likewise propose a 20 percent tax on milk, 15 percent on lamb, 8.5 percent on poultry, 7 percent on pork, and 5 percent on eggs.
Marco Springmann, a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at Oxford University and lead author of the study, told The Guardian, “It is clear that if we don’t do something about the emissions from our food system, we have no chance of limiting climate change below 2˚C”—that is, below the level climate experts say is necessary if we want to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming.
Yet addressing food-related emissions has often been overlooked in the debates surrounding climate change—even at the landmark international climate summit in Paris last year. This despite that global livestock production alone accounts for as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles combined, according to a report published last year by Chatham House, a British think tank. The trend lines don’t bode well for the future: Consumers in industrialized countries consume twice as much meat as medical experts deem healthy; in the U.S., it’s three times as much. Forecasts predict global meat demand will increase by 76 percent in the next 30 to 40 years, and as a result, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock could cancel out or even exceed reductions made in other sectors.
By design, the taxes proposed in the recent study dovetail with medical research, with higher rates assigned to foods that have a greater impact not only on the climate but on our health as well. All told, the authors say, the taxes could cut an estimated 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere each year while preventing more than 500,000 early deaths from heart disease, stroke, and other diet-related diseases.
No doubt, if the battles over things like soda taxes are any indication, levying a carbon tax on American middle-class staples such as ground beef and milk is a tough sell—and that may be an understatement.
Still, for Springmann, who last year was the lead author of another study showing we could cut climate pollution by 70 percent if the entire world went vegan, the choice is clear. “Either we have climate change and more heart disease, diabetes and obesity,” he told The Guardian, “or we do something about the food system.”