Climate tax on meat and milk mean less greenhouse gases

A climate tax on meat and milk could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from European agriculture by about seven percent. If the land freed up by this were to be used to cultivate bioenergy, the emissions reduction could be six times greater. This is shown in an article published in the scientific journal Climatic Change.
The article is written by the Chalmers’ researchers Stefan Wirsenius and Fredrik Hedenus and also Kristina Mohlin, at the time at Chalmers and now conducting PhD studies at Gothenburg University. In the article, the researchers show that reduced meat consumption has two effects. A direct one that entails considerably less emission of methane and nitrous oxide, and an indirect one, in that land that is freed up can be used for bioenergy cultivation.

Food production is a source that cannot be ignored when it comes to direct emissions of greenhouse gases – globally it accounts for 20–25 percent of emissions. However, it is difficult to estimate emissions from food, since the foremost emission sources are methane from the stomachs of cows and nitrous oxidefrom fertilized soil – both very expensive and technically complicated to measure. Also, there are few technological solutions to reduce these emissions. Altered eating habits, on the other hand, could have a major impact. If beef is replaced with chicken, emissions decrease by 90 percent. If beef is replaced with beans, the reduction is 99 percent.

“Normally a tax on emissions from food production would be the best thing. But since this is virtually impossible, and the effects of replacing meat and milk are so great, we show that it can be quite effective to levy the tax directly on meat,” says Stefan Wirsenius, a researcher at the Department of Energy and Environment at Chalmers.

Beef, which entails the most emissions, is taxed more according to the proposal, whereas chicken and pork are taxed less, since their emissions are lower.

“Today we have tax on gasoline and a trade system for industries and power production, but no policy instruments at all for emissions related to food. This means that we are not paying our climate costs for food at all,” says Fredrik Hedenus, another researcher at the Department of Energy and Environment at Chalmers.

A climate tax on red meat would also entail that land would become available for cultivating bioenergy plants.

“If the world decides to truly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, land will become a scarce resource, since a lot of land could be put to use for bioenergy. Land-efficient agriculture would therefore become more and more important. The production of beef requires twenty times as much land per kCal as beans,” says Fredrik Hedenus.

A tax corresponding to 60 €/ton of CO2 would bring down beef consumption by 15 percent, according to the estimation. Such a reduction would not represent a threat to grazing lands that are worth protecting. 
“It’s not a matter of forcing people to become vegetarians, but merely to steer them toward a somewhat more climate-smart diet,” says Stefan Wirsenius.

The article "Greenhouse gastaxes on animalfood products: Rationale, taxscheme and climate mitigation effects" has been published by Climatic Change online on Dec 15, 2010.

Fredrik Hedenus, Physical Resource Theory, Chalmers University of Technology.
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Published: Fri 28 Jan 2011.