‘Food emissions tax’ would cut meat-eating

Study into carbon tax on high-emissions food finds people would be more likely to eat less meat if they had to pay more for it

Cow made of dollar signs, on black backgroundResearchers at Reading and Oxford universities looking into the implementation of a possible tax on carbon-intensive foods have found that it would encourage consumers to eat less meat.

The snappily titled report – Simulating the impact on health of internalising the cost of carbon in food prices combined with a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages – looks into the possibility of charging people more money for foods with a higher environmental cost, such as meat.

In four modelled scenarios, the researchers looked at the impact on British shopping habits of applying a tax of £2.86 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent for every 100 g of food. First, they looked at taxing food with higher than average emissions. Then they explored the outcome of applying this tax and at the same time applying subsidies for greener foods. And the third and fourth scenarios were repeats of the first two, but with a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks thrown in for good measure, to counter any consumer shift towards cheaper, unhealthier foods.

The purpose of a tax on, say, red meat, would be to make people think twice about adding it to their shopping trolleys or online checkout, improving their health and that of the planet. Adam Briggs, the lead author and a public health researcher at Oxford, said such a move could see greenhouse gas emissions cut by the equivalent of 16.5 to 18.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, while at the same time adding £3.6 billion to the Treasury’s coffers.

But he warned that, in the current financial climate, Britons would be unlikely to welcome such a move with open wallets. “We see this [research] more as a stimulus for conversation,” Briggs said.

Under a modelled scenario, the price of beef and lamb would be increased by 5 to 45 per cent, to about £1.75 a kilogram. The tax would add just £2.50 to the weekly shop of the average Briton, but would be enough to change what they buy. The researchers found that in the two scenarios where subsidies were applied on healthier food, shoppers would tend to buy less meat and dairy products, and eat more fruit and vegetables.

However, the effect did not impact largely on the amount of harmful greenhouse gases produced. “We found that a 20 per cent tax [on high-emission foods] had a very meaningful impact that led to much greater reduction in consumption from the baseline, but the effect on greenhouse gas emissions was fairly small,” Briggs said.

Last year a study by Chatham House found that more people would be amenable to a meat tax if they were aware of the environmental problems caused by the livestock industry. Britons also expected their leaders to take action to curb meat eating in order to protect their health.

Read the report