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How taxing your cheeseburger may slow global warming

Steve Mendelsohn  Senior Vice President, Global Tax and Accounting Market Development, Thomson Reuters

Steve Mendelsohn  Senior Vice President, Global Tax and Accounting Market Development, Thomson Reuters

A big tax on foods with big carbon footprints could help save both the environment and public health.

Adam Briggs, a Wellcome Trust Research Training Fellow studying for a DPhil (Ph.D.) at Oxford University, thinks he has an answer to global warming: a tax on foods with a heavy carbon footprint.

I recently sat down with him to discuss his study that he told me investigates “how food, nutrition, and sustainability overlap,” particularly identifying which foods take the biggest toll on our planet.

“The differences in the scale of emissions from food sources are enormous,” Briggs explained to me. “It is pretty clear that meat generates more emissions than vegetables, and broadly that’s because it’s less efficient to generate calories in the form of meat compared to veg. This is then reflected in levels of greenhouse gas emissions.”

A kilo of beef requires 60-70 kilos of CO2 to produce, as opposed to a kilo of potatoes which is about 0.4.

Food growth is responsible for a massive portion of the world’s carbon dioxide pollution (one-third). So in order to combat it, Briggs proposes a tax on the products most responsible. As a result, he predicts a curtailing of their consumption, which would serve dual benefits: a cleaner planet and a healthier populace.

The U.K.-based Briggs says such a system would result in 2,000 fewer deaths in his country, attributable to diets that would ultimately end up being higher in fiber and lower in fat. That doesn’t even factor into the 16.5 megatons of averted CO2 emissions.

So just how much of a tax are we talking about? And what would be enough to truly change consumer behavior?

“The limited analyses that we do have tend to indicate that a tax upwards of 20 percent could lead to a meaningful change in consumption,” he told me.

When we’re talking about meat, in terms of limiting carbon emissions, our research suggests a price increase of between 5 percent and 45 percent, based on quality and cut of beef, leads to a meaningful effect on both health and emissions

“We estimate that, post-change in purchasing, the average family would see their weekly food bill increase about $4 or so per week,” he continued. “We would then expect a reduction in beef and lamb consumption of between 15-20 percent. Behavioral science does indicate that price is a strong determinant on what we buy, so price changes would likely have a much larger impact than educational campaigns or product placement.”

Still, even if a tax on foods with major carbon footprints could change the world, it’s not always that simple, especially in a political climate that carries various subsidies for the farming community. Is Briggs optimistic that a tax like this would ever be signed into law?

“I think once people really begin to realize that we’re getting record temperatures year-after-year, something is going to have to give, and I think food is a relatively easy change we can make through either a tax or through necessity,” he said. “But with how influential agribusiness is makes it a much harder nut to crack. The farming community has a very strong voice.”

View the story as it originally appeared on Inc.


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