Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Tax Food, Not Just Fuel, to Save the Planet

U.K. researchers want to fight climate change in your belly—and maybe help you lose a few pounds, too.

Climate change debates often dwell on the price of things that go round and round, like power-generating turbines or the wheels on the bus. That's where the tie to climate pollution is clearest: burn, churn, emit.

That may not be enough. Every year that global carbon dioxide levels go up, countries need more ways to cut emissions. A new paper published on Wednesday in the journal BMC Public Health reasons that growing food, the source of about one-third of carbon dioxide pollution, should also be a target for taxation. 

The good news is that they're not talking about food that's good for you. The items most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are often the least healthy, particularly red meat. The point is that "small, incremental changes to people's diets," in the words of lead author Adam Briggs, can bring significant reductions in emissions, improvements in health, and increases in public tax revenue.

The U.K. researchers aren't content with keeping carbon compounds out of the atmosphere. They want to keep them off your midsection, too.

Photographer: Getty Images

In recent years, some policymakers have begun to treat CO2 cuts as a fringe benefit of programs aimed more directly at improving human health. Think of China's smog-choked cities. The primary motivation to clear the air is arguably that urban residents are fond of breathing, but the fringe benefit is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

That's similar to the reasoning of the UK. paper's authors and that of a growing number of British voices (including the prominent think tank, Chatham House) drawing attention to the climate impact of food cultivation. The ideal is a single policy that could nail two targets: unhealthy eating and climate change. Basically, methane-belching cattle and sheep are pretty bad all the way around. 

"The aim of the paper is not to make everyone become a vegetarian," said Briggs, a public-health researcher at the University of Oxford. Nobody's going to starve because there's plenty of pork, chicken, and fish to offset cuts in beef and lamb.

The researchers also envision a 20 percent U.K. tax on sugar and sugary soft drinks to bring in additional tax revenue while encouraging people to make healthy choices. (Alcohol and coffee are spared.)

The results of their study show that nudges here and there can have a big effect on what a nation eats. They look at four scenarios, with the most pronounced results coming from the last. In that case, taxes are levied on foods with pollution footprints bigger than the U.K. average, the proceeds are used to subsidize foods with smaller-than-average footprints, and sugary drinks are taxed.  (In real life, legislation could be written that makes sure a regressive tax doesn't disproportionately hit the poor.)

The researchers project that such a system would result in 2,000 fewer U.K. deaths, thanks to diets higher in fiber and lower in fat, as well as 16.5 megatons of averted CO2 emissions.

This is rigorous work. Agriculture has more players than the energy sector, and figuring out the climate effects of food production isn't as easy as it is with a lump of coal. "It's very tricky to know the carbon footprint of a hamburger," said Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. "We know exactly the carbon footprint of a gallon of gas."

Then there is the political dynamic. If the push-back from the energy industry (and its lawyers and lobbyists) over increased regulation tied to climate change is any sign, a similar fight with agribusiness (and its lawyers and lobbyists) would be long and arduous. 

The road to a warmer world is papered over with clever ideas that are politically impractical, such as a 2011 paper suggesting that CO2 be taxed where fossil fuel is extracted. Just two weeks ago scientists reported how, for the price of its highway system (in today's dollars), the U.S. could have all the renewable power it wants on a modern electrical grid. Neither is likely to happen soon, if ever. 

This Oxford study may end up joining the others in the land of relative obscurity. That is, unless low-fat, lab-grown steaks become a thing, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week. Then we could tax our meat and have it, too. 

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