A food tax based on a product’s carbon footprint would bring benefits not only for the climate, but also for public health, according to a British study published on Monday (7 November). EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.
From field to fork, our food is responsible for around a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This share is set to rise steeply in line with population growth, and further driven by the westernisation of the diet in developing countries, which tend to be more sparing with meat.
Faced with the growing gap between food security and the fight against climate change, researcher Marco Springmann and his colleagues from the University of Oxford modelled the efficiency of a global food tax, according to its carbon footprint. The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Based on a price of $52 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, the researchers evaluated the climate and health benefits that would arise as a result of the changes to consumption habits that such a tax would encourage.
10% emissions cut
Prices for the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive foods (beef, lamb, dairy products, vegetable oils) would increase by between 15% and 40%, and global consumption would fall by between 6% and 13%. The tax would raise the price of fruits and vegetables by less than 3%, not significantly affecting consumption.
As a result, the researchers estimated that global GHG emissions would fall by one gigatonne of CO2 equivalent per year, or 9.3% of current emissions from food production. Put another way, this is equal to 10% of the effort needed by 2020 to keep global warming below +2°C.
Reductions in beef consumption would account for two thirds of this emissions cut, and dairy products a further quarter. Middle income countries would be responsible for around three quarters of the total gains, while changes to consumption habits in high income countries would contribute just 8-9%.
A healthy option?
For public health, the tax would be a double-edged sword. According to the study, it would prevent 107,000 deaths per year, notably from cardiovascular disease. But more precisely, it would save 146,000 lives in 115 of the 150 countries analysed, while causing 29,000 extra deaths from malnutrition in 31 other countries.
For the greatest positive effect, the researchers recommended applying the tax to all food products, either with an exception for fruits and vegetables, which could be reduced in price, or financial compensation for consumers in the poorest countries.
This scenario could save 510,000 lives each year without any country being left worse off. And it would prevent the emission of 919 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, or 8.6% of the global total linked to food.