Labels v taxes: which way to cut carbon?

Politicians need to encourage a shift to sustainable diets in the fight against climate change. The big question is how.

What does a kilo of greenhouse gases buy you in the supermarket? Researchers at Lancaster University and RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, analysed 1,718 global warming potential values in 168 fresh foods to find out. The results are interesting if not entirely surprising. “The meta-analysis indicates a clear greenhouse gas [GHG] hierarchy emerging across the food categories, with grains, fruit and vegetables having the lowest impact and meat from ruminants having the highest impact,” they explain in their paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Carbon counting

That kilo of GHGs will buy plenty of fruit and veg: 5.8kg of onions, 3.5kg of apples, 2.6kg of oats and 1kg of lentils, for example. However, you’d get far less meat: 270g of chicken, 160g of UK pork and just 40g of UK beef or lamb. “You would have a hard time arguing that you can replace beef with onions as they serve very different culinary and dietary requirements,” admits Dr Stephen Clune, one of the authors. “However, it is possible to substitute red meat with other meats, or plant-based protein sources such as lentils and nuts that have a lower impact.” This would make a considerable difference to the footprint of the average family of four’s weekly shop. The researchers show that switching beef and lamb for non-ruminant meat such as duck, rabbit or (as it’s an Australian family) kangaroo and to fish such as pollock reduces the amount of carbon embedded in their groceries by 30%. Stick to a diet of plants and fish that still matches the recommended protein intake and there’s a 52% reduction in GHGs. Clune says the results could be used “with confidence to plan menus for individuals and catering companies who want to reduce their carbon footprint, by selecting foods from different categories”. But how many caterers or consumers will print out the table and stick it to their fridge? Not many. And fewer still would remember to take it when they visit the local wholesaler or supermarket.

A paucity of policy

How to encourage a shift towards more sustainable (that is, lower carbon and often healthier) diets is the elephant in the room for policymakers. There appeared little discussion of the issue at November’s COP22 climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco. The talks were positive, but a UN Environment Programme report published beforehand showed the scale of the challenge ahead. Even with the pledges in the Paris Agreement, which came into force in November, global emissions are forecast to reach 54 to 56 gigatonnes by 2030 – which translates to a temperature rise of somewhere between 2.9°C and 3.4°C by 2100. To stay within the 2°C threshold world leaders committed to last December, emissions need to be no more than 42 gigatonnes by 2030. That’s a considerable gap to plug. The 200 nations gathered in Morocco affirmed their “highest political commitment” to combating climate change. Fine words, but will this commitment extend beyond the sexier solutions such as renewable energy and electric cars to tough issues such as meat consumption?

Carbon tax: what’s your beef?

With Brexit to deliver and the climate change sceptic Donald Trump to deal with as US president-elect, environmental policymakers in the UK and EU have plenty on their plates already. A carbon tax on foods, say, is unlikely to be a priority. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change in November should turn a few heads, though. Experts at the Oxford Martin programme on the future of food at Oxford University calculated that a carbon levy on foods could help slash GHGs by a billion tonnes and save half a million lives. “If you’d have to pay 40% more for your steak, you might choose to have it once a week instead of twice,” says lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann. Livestock products, like meat and dairy, would be taxed hardest due to their higher emissions, while the price of fruits and vegetables would remain pretty much the same. The beef surcharge would be 40%, while milk would be 21% more expensive. The price rises would result in consumption falling 13% and 8% respectively. Consumption of high-carbon foods overall would fall by about 10%, they estimated. There would also be health benefits from the subsequent shift in diets, a finding that runs contrary to fears that the policy would have a harmful effect on food and nutrition, especially in low-income regions. “Food prices are a sensitive topic,” admits Springmann, but “we show that pricing foods according to their climate impacts could not only lead to lower emissions, but also to healthier diets in almost all countries around the world.”

Eyes wide shut

Is such a policy realistic? As Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, put it, food is a climate policy blind spot “because tackling food emissions means tackling consumers. And consumers vote.” Some are starting to see the need for more radical ideas. The Danish Council on Ethics, for example, has said that food is “an obvious place to start” when it comes to tackling climate change, and consumers need to be pushed rather than nudged towards ethical diets: “If we are to live up to the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rise ‘well’ below 2°C, it is necessary to act quickly and involve food.” A tax on beef is a good place to start, members said. “It will clarify the issues for consumers and lead to restricted spending.” It worked for tobacco, after all, and there are signs (depending on who you talk to) that it can work and is working for sugary drinks too. Still, the council’s senior consultant Anne Lykkeskov isn’t expecting politicians to line up in support of the recommendations. Judging from the political reactions it is “very unlikely” there will be any political initiatives in this area in the foreseeable future, she says.

Labels revisited

Rather than taxing high-carbon foods, perhaps labelling them is worth another shot? Labels, as Footprint associate editor Nick Hughes noted in an article for TIFSIP last year, matter precisely because of their ability to influence how people shop. However, “there are just a few seconds … to give the shopper a compelling reason to buy the product over that of a competitor”. Awareness of the big ethical labels such as Fairtrade, organic and MSC (for seafood) is increasing all the time, but beyond those it’s very hard to gain traction. Tesco, for one, has tried. However, a huge project to carbon label all its products came unstuck once the retailer realised how much it was going to cost, how long it was going take and, critically, that none of its competitors were doing the same. Even the brands that are investing heavily in creating low- or zero-carbon products are treading carefully before marketing them as such. Heineken’s Brewed by the Sun range – beers produced at sites powered by solar energy – has gone down well. Would a zero-carbon beer from its new zero-carbon brewery in Austria have a similar pull? It is a bigger leap, admits the brewer’s director of sustainability, Michael Dickstein, but there is a small group of customers interested and it’s a “very relevant” topic. Having said that, he is wary of research showing how most consumers are already making sustainable purchasing decisions. “They leave the interview and by the time they’ve got to the supermarket they’ve forgotten,” he says. If only they’d remembered to bring that list of carbon footprints with them. Note: This article was first published on www.tifsip.org in November 2016. It has been published here with permission.

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