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Scientists Say Tax Meat to Help Cut Methane Emissions

By Adam Vaughan, The Guardian

Meat should be taxed to encourage people to eat less of it, so reducing the production of global warming gases from sheep, cattle and goats, according to a group of scientists.

The scientists' analysis takes the contentious step of suggesting methane emissions be cut by pushing up the price of meat through a tax or emissions trading scheme.
Credit: Flickr/Tord Sollie

Several high-profile figures, from the chief of the UN's climate science panel to the economist Lord Stern, have previously advocated eating less meat to tackle global warming.

The scientists' analysis, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, takes the contentious step of suggesting methane emissions be cut by pushing up the price of meat through a tax or emissions trading scheme.

"Influencing human behavior is one of the most challenging aspects of any large-scale policy, and it is unlikely that a large-scale dietary change will happen voluntarily without incentives," they say. "Implementing a tax or emission trading scheme on livestock's greenhouse gas emissions could be an economically sound policy that would modify consumer prices and affect consumption patterns."

There are now 3.6 billion ruminants on the planet – mostly sheep, cattle and goats and, in much smaller numbers, buffalo – 50 percent more than half a century ago. Methane from their digestive systems is the single biggest human-related source of the greenhouse gas, which is more short-lived but around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet.

Emissions from livestock account for 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases, according to the UN. It estimates that this could be cut by nearly a third through better farming practices.

Pete Smith, a professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen, and one of the authors of the report, said: "Our study showed that one of the most effective ways to cut methane is to reduce global populations of ruminant livestock, especially cattle."

He said methane from livestock could only be reduced by addressing demand for meat at the same time.

The scientists say not enough attention has been paid to tackling greenhouse gases other than CO2, especially in the ongoing UN climate talks, which last convened in Warsaw in November.

The only way the world could avoid dangerous tipping points as temperatures rise would be by cutting methane emissions as well as CO2 emissions from sources such as energy and transport, they argue. Reducing livestock numbers, they point out, would also avoid CO2 emissions released when forests are cleared for cattle farms.

Emissions from livestock account for 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases, according to the UN. It estimates that this could be cut by nearly a third through better farming practices.
Credit: David Sillitoe for The Guardian

William Ripple, a professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and another of the authors, said: "We clearly need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels to cut CO2 emissions. But that addresses only part of the problem. We also need to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases to lessen the likelihood of us crossing this climatic threshold."

The farming industry said the tax proposal was too simplistic. Nick Allen, sector director for Eblex, the organization for beef and lamb producers in England, said: "To suggest a tax is a better way to cut emissions seems a simplistic and blunt suggestion that will inevitably see a rise in consumer prices.

"It is a very complex area. Simply reducing numbers of livestock – as a move like this would inevitably do – does not improve efficiency of the rumen process, which takes naturally growing grass that we cannot eat and turns it into a protein to feed a growing human population."

Allen said reducing emissions was an important goal for the industry. He added: "Grazing livestock have helped shape and manage the countryside for hundreds of years. They bring significant environmental benefits that can significantly mitigate the negative effect of emissions. It is unfortunate that in recent years they have become an easy scapegoat for emissions, despite the fact that the livestock population is generally falling."

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.


By Mike
on December 30th, 2013

Politically this is a bad idea. You’ll be accused causing hunger among the poor.  If it were to be done then all proceeds should go toward food aid.

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By sprocketsanjay
on December 31st, 2013

Scientists should stick to science.  Taxing meat only means the rich will eat it and without much reduction in their intake.  Essentially what the scientists are saying is stop the poor from eating meat because of its climate impacts.  That’s not really a solution.  It’s a capitalistic response.

I would advocate a reduction in the production of meat by law ; an increase in grass fed production (to reduce grain production for meat) and a system of equitable distribution to those who want to eat it.

Having grown up in a vegetarian home eating indian food I cannot see the attraction of meat especially its insipid fat.  I am sure my distaste of meat eating is due to my memories and tastes of vegetarian food I ate as a child.

Now that would imply rearing children on a vegetarian or reduced meat diet would over a generation or two reduce the problem of excess meat eating in their adult life.

But that would require education, ability to cook - abd of course time and knowledge.  That would not please big food.  And once again we come back to capitalistic issues.

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By Dylan (Laurel)
on December 31st, 2013

Any time you see scientists suggesting taxes, you should doubt their validity as ‘scientists’.

But really, if scientists supposedly did suggest this, did they do the science to even see if it would work.  Do we tax things to reduce the product of those things?  You might say, but the carbon tax is this very idea.  Well, how come none of our other taxes are for this purpose?  How come our food taxes aren’t to reduce food to the population (That’s not their stated purpose but that IS what they do) and how come our income taxes aren’t to reduce income to the population?  (That’s not their stated purpose but that is what they do)

We don’t even know if methane emissions have a noticeable effect on the climate, and we also don’t know that taxes are the best way to reduce things.  Taxes are a transfer of wealth, and if someone tries to justify a tax with the environment you should become very worried.  These taxes amount to tithes to an invisible god (Nature).  However, the thing is that money is not going to change anything.  A tax doesn’t reduce things, it makes them cost more.

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By SecularAnimist
on January 2nd, 2014

Mike wrote: “You’ll be accused causing hunger among the poor.”

Livestock production causes hunger among the poor, by misdirecting vast amounts of grains and soybeans to animal feed rather than using it to feed human beings directly, with a resulting loss of up to 90 percent of the original protein content of the plant foods.  Meat is an expensive luxury for the affluent, and the poor pay the price.

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By Gingerbaker
on January 2nd, 2014

Prove your assertions.  Vast amounts of grain? Feeding the poor requires more soybeans?

Livestock mostly eat grain byproducts - the corn stalks, not the corn.  Portraying this as a zero sum game is sophistry.

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