op ed articles

Swedish researchers suggest climate tax on red meat

John Strak

February 1, 2011


Swedish academics have called for a climate tax on meat as a way of reducing green house gas emissions, estimating the policy would reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions in Europe by around 7 percent and if the land released was used to cultivate bio-energy, the emissions reduction could be six times greater.

The researchers, Stefan Wirsenius, Fredrik Hedenus and  Kristina Mohlin, are all based at or linked with the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. Their research, published in the journal Climatic Change, shows 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 bio-energy cultivation.

The academics claim that food production is an activity that cannot be ignored when it comes to direct emissions of greenhouse gases, which they estimate accounts for 20 percent to 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 oxide from fertilized soil – both very expensive and technically complicated to measure.

Altered eating habits, they argue, 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, according to their research.

“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,” said Wirsenius.

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,” said Hedenus.