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For decades, climate policy activists have discussed how a carbon tax would force polluters to pay for the not-so-hidden impacts that burning fossil fuels cost society. Although there’s no global price on carbon, some places have implemented such policies.  What is a relatively novel concept is a tax on resource-intensive foods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture is responsible for roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. On average, animal-based foods are associated with more greenhouse gas emissions per calorie than plant-based alternatives. For example, a vegan is responsible for about half as much food-related greenhouse gas emissions as your average meat eater. If global trends continue, meat consumption is on track to increase by more than 75 percent by 2050, compared with 2005-2007 levels, and shifting to more eco-friendly diets is critical to meeting global climate targets.

Bacon cheeseburgers. (Photo Credit: Pixabay)

Bacon cheeseburgers. (Photo Credit: Pixabay)

A recent study used French household purchasing data between 1998 and 2010 to simulate how a tax on carbon intensive foods like meat and cheese would impact greenhouse gas emissions (among other things). They found that a 20 percent price hike could reduce household food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 6.6 percent to 13.2 percent  (depending on a number of indicators).

Is taxing consumers buying burgers and salami the way to a low-carbon future?

“We think it’s better to price meats earlier in the (food) chain, it’s easier. It’s sexier to tax it at the consumer level, but not as effective,” said United Nations advisor Dr. Maarten Hajer.

Shifting dietary trends towards healthier and more eco-friendly foods is a delicate process. Although, Denmark is considering a tax on beef to reduce per-capita emissions, a consumer-facing meat tax, in the U.S. at least, is unlikely in the near future. Studies show that culturally sensitive information campaigns on the combined health and environmental benefits of shifting diets, government policy incentives, food retailer (restaurant and markets) cooperation and increased plant-based food options can encourage families to set their tables with cleaner and greener foods.

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