Should We Tax Meat to Reduce Methane Emissions?

Taxing meat as an attempt to discourage consumers to buy it could be an effective way to reduce methane emissions from livestock, according to a new study.

The analysis, published in Nature Climate Change, used knowledge from previous studies on methane emissions and livestock to make the argument that meat consumption should be curbed if methane emissions are to be reduced. It’s consumer-driven change, the scientists say: if meat consumption goes down, the number of cows and other ruminants that expel methane will also decrease.

“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,” the analysis reads. “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.”

The analysis also estimates that the greenhouse gas emissions of raising livestock are 19 to 48 times higher than from growing high-protein plant food, such as beans and soy. Last month, a study found that methane emissions in the U.S. were about 1.5 times greater in 2007 and 2008 than previously estimated, and that livestock produced about twice as much methane during that time period than the EPA previously estimated.

This isn’t the first time that scientists and economists have called for a reduction in meat consumption as a way to combat methane emissions. Nicholas Stern, former adviser to the U.K. on the economics of climate change, has called for more people to adopt vegetarian diets to reduce emissions from livestock.

“Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases” he said in 2009. “It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”

Scientists have also called on people in the developed world to cut their meat consumption in half. Mark Sutton of the U.K.’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has urged people to reduce their meat consumption and to “make it special” when they do eat meat.

In rich countries, cutting back on meat consumption doesn’t take much effort — vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives are getting closer and closer to the real thing, and most grocery stores offer a range of other plant-based protein sources. But as consumers in developing countries like China develop more of a demand for meat, scientists are looking into other ways to reduce livestock’s greenhouse gas footprint. Earlier this year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found livestock emissions could be cut by 30 percent just by adopting better farming practices, such as feeding cows more easily-digestible food. Scientists are also looking into tropical grasses called brachiaria, which naturally inhibit the release of nitrous oxide — a gas which, according to the FAO, is responsible for 29 percent of livestock’s emissions. This wouldn’t tackle livestock’s methane problem, but scientists say using enhanced strains of the grass in cattle pastures and as a rotation crop for corn and soybeans could be a viable way to combat livestock emissions.

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