Carbon taxes could help fight climate change and obesity

Pricing food according to its carbon footprint could cut greenhouse gas emissions by a billion tonnes and save half a million lives, according to new research.

Experts in the UK and US first modelled the emissions generated by the production of different foods and the cost of the damage caused. They then assessed the impact on consumption levels if these environmental costs were added to the price of the foods.

The carbon tax on beef would be 40%, whilst on milk it would be 21%. Prices of lamb and poultry would also rise 15% and 8% respectively if a carbon levy were applied.

Higher prices would also result in falling consumption, of course. Up to 13% less beef would be consumed globally, they estimated, as well as 8% less milk and 6% less lamb.

Overall, consumption of products with large carbon footprints would fall by 10%, which could also have health benefits as a result of reductions in diet-related diseases, the scientists noted in their paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

About half a million lives could be saved per year from 2020, they estimated, due to lower consumption of red meat, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well as a decrease in the number of people who are overweight or obese.

These reductions in obesity could outweigh the health losses from increased numbers of underweight people in most regions. However, in some low-income countries the policies would need to be adapted, for example by including subsidies for fruit and vegetables.

“… 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,” explained Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, who led the study.

Introducing a carbon tax on foods would be a controversial move, but it could also be a necessary one. “Emissions pricing of foods would generate a much needed contribution of the food system to reducing the impacts of global climate change,” Springmann said. “We hope that’s something policymakers gathering this week at the Marrakech climate conference will take note of.”

COP22 in Morocco is the first major meeting since the global deal on climate change was struck in Paris last December. Last week, the Paris Agreement came into force. The focus will now turn to how to meet the commitments and how to make even deeper emissions cuts.

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