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It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2018

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just can’t imagine that, for instance, floods, mudslides, wildfires, biblical droughts and back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes are going to be a serious problem in our lifetimes. And we certainly don’t make the connection to the food on our plates, or to beef in particular.

The cattle industry would like to keep it that way. Oil, gas and coal had to play along, for instance, when the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency instituted mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. But the program to track livestock emissions was mysteriously defunded by Congress in 2010, and the position of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association at the time was that the extent of the emissions was “alleged and unsubstantiated.” The association now goes an Orwellian step further, arguing in its 2018 policy book that agriculture is a source of offsets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture, including cattle raising, is our third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the energy and industrial sectors. At first glance, the root of the problem may appear to be our appetite for meat generally. Chatham House, the influential British think tank, attributes 14.5 percent of global emissions to livestock — “more than the emissions produced from powering all the world’s road vehicles, trains, ships and airplanes combined.” Livestock consume the yield from a quarter of all cropland worldwide. Add in grazing, and the business of making meat occupies about three-quarters of the agricultural land on the planet.

Beef and dairy cattle together account for an outsize share of agriculture and its attendant problems, including almost two-thirds of all livestock emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That’s partly because there are so many of them — 1 billion to 1.4 billion head of cattle worldwide. They don’t outnumber humanity, but with cattle in this country topping out at about 1,300 pounds apiece, their footprint on the planet easily outweighs ours.

The emissions come partly from the fossil fuels used to plant, fertilize and harvest the feed to fatten them up for market. In addition, ruminant digestion causes cattle to belch and otherwise emit huge quantities of methane. A new study in the journal Carbon Balance and Management puts the global gas output of cattle at 120 million tons per year. Methane doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide. But in the first 20 years after its release, it’s 80 to 100 times more potent at trapping the heat of the sun and warming the planet. The way feedlots and other producers manage manure also ensures that cattle continue to produce methane long after they have gone to the great steakhouse in the sky.

The French researchers, from the Toulouse School of Economics, decided to take a look at a carbon tax on beef because the European Union has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions more than half by midcentury — and that includes agricultural emissions. The ambition is to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, widely regarded as a tipping point at which cascading and potentially catastrophic effects of climate change could sweep across the planet. Their study found that a relatively steep tax, based on greenhouse gas emissions, would raise the retail price of beef by about 40 percent and cause a corresponding drop in consumption, much like the sugar tax on sodas and the tax on tobacco products.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to put a carbon tax on fossil fuel, a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions? You bet. But many people who now commute in conventional gas-fueled automobiles have no better way to get home — or to heat their homes when they get there. That broader carbon tax will require dramatically restructuring our lives. A carbon tax on beef, on the other hand, would be a relatively simple test case for such taxes and, according to the French study, only a little painful, at least at the household level: While people would tend to skip the beef bourguignon, they could substitute other meats, like pork and chicken, that have a much smaller climate change footprint.

The tax would also reduce the substantial contribution of beef and dairy cattle to water pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss and human mortality. (A 2012 Harvard School of Public Health study found that adding a single serving of unprocessed red meat per day increases the risk of death by 13 percent.) Those factors have already driven down beef consumption in the United States by 19 percent since 2005.

Zohra Bouamra-Mechemache, a co-author of the French study, readily acknowledged that the proposed carbon tax on beef has no chance of becoming reality, “not even in Europe” and certainly not in the United States. Our politicians continue to regard the beef industry as, well, a sacred cow. And even if the rest of us acknowledge the reality of climate change, we tend to put off actually doing much about it in our own lives. It’s a J. Wellington Wimpy philosophy: We want our hamburgers today, on a promise to pay on some future Tuesday, probably in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Still, the idea of a carbon tax on beef makes me think. I crave the aroma of beef, from a burger, or a barbecue brisket cooked low and slow. It’s just harder to enjoy it now when I can also catch the faint whiff of methane lingering 20 years into our increasingly uncertain future.

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4 Responses to “It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef”

  1. Kim R F Keller said

    Regarding your opinion piece in the NYT. Yes yes yes. Though My heart sank, as it so often does now, when I read that the French co-author of the study (regarding a carbon tax on beef) admitted that it has no chance of becoming a reality. Not even in Europe. Is there any hope? For anything to change? Anyhow, great suggestion. Really wish it could come true

  2. Wendy Pratt said

    Hello, I am a rancher from Idaho and read your piece with obvious interest. I write an occasional opinion piece myself in our local paper and composed this as a “rebuttal” to yours. I’m not only passionate about the beef industry but about pollinators and insects and fungi and sage grouse and . . . .

    As cattle ranchers we’re accustomed to criticism. Grazing is seen as an extractive industry even though grass grows back and thrives when properly grazed. Beef is seen as unhealthy, when it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods we can eat. Animal rights advocates want our heads and fake meat aims to fill the protein case.

    But still we were shocked to read a New York Times Opinion piece promoting a carbon tax on beef. So climate change is our fault as well? What the reader doesn’t realize, however, is the breathtaking reductionist thinking of this premise.

    Ruminants emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but ruminants are on earth for a reason and have played a critical role in the cycling of plants for eons. In brittle environments – those with seasonal moisture – grazing animals have a symbiotic relationship with grass. And grass is the most ubiquitous, life giving, soil anchoring protector of the planet we have.

    Grass needs periodic removal. The growth point is near the soil surface and the plant needs a grazing animal or other disturbance to remove old growth. Tragically, for many thousands of acres annually worldwide, that disturbance is fire to provide a clean slate for new growth. Instead of using grazing animals which provide an economic return, the land is burned releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere needlessly. Of course, closer to home, wildfire is the greatest threat to healthy range and the fuel load can be reduced by animals.

    Grazing by hooved ruminants affect the soil surface positively as well. The chipping of soil makes a seedbed, old growth is pushed down as litter to moderate temperatures and slow erosion, and dung and urine are deposited.

    Taking the long view, herbivores’ unique niche provides for other living beings in an ingenious way. Most of the world has a short growing season. In these climates, herds of herbivores take the bounty of that green season, convert it into muscle (and milk) and make the energy and nutrients produced by plants available to meat eaters, including man, the rest of the year.

    It’s estimated that 60% of the earth’s landmass is too poor for cultivation – a perfect job for ruminants. Alarmingly this land is turning to desert in the U.S. and around the world partially because of the lack of periodic grazing and hoof action. Desertification releases carbon, therefore climate change and degraded landscapes are tightly linked.

    With all the positives, the most exciting potential for ranchers is applying pulse grazing which allows plenty of grass regrowth to sink carbon into the soil.

    Can the modern beef industry do better? Of course. We need to educate ourselves and do all we can to lessen our carbon footprint. We need to promote biodiversity in our pastures and refine and rethink the feedlot model. But to vilify beef is dangerous and lacks the understanding that we are intimately dependent on natural cycles and removing a ruminant actively managed by man that can regenerate degraded landscapes is foolhardy.

  3. Hi Wendy. I salute ranchers who care about “about pollinators and insects and fungi and sage grouse” and I am hoping that your “and . . . . ” includes wolves and other native predators. I’m aware that practices like adaptive multi-paddock grazing can produce environmental benefits. I have also visited ranchers around the American west who have performed small miracles of habitat and water table restoration by creating exclosures to keep cattle out of riparian zones.

    The trouble is ranchers like that are the rare exception. A “shoot, shovel, and shut up” attitude toward predators is still the rule, especially but by no means exclusively in Idaho. So is overgrazing, to the point that much of the American west is being beaten into dust by cattle, and streams are so badly abused that the water table that might otherwise sustain cattle and wildlife drops far far out of reach.

    Finally 96% of American beef–the stuff buyers see at the supermarket–comes out of feedlots that are a climate change nightmare.

    As I said in the article, I still like hamburgers. But until ranchers like you get together and find a way to get wildlife- and environment-friendly meat into supermarkets everywhere, American consumers will increasingly find beef hard to stomach.

    • Wendy Pratt said

      Richard, thanks for the opportunity to weigh in. We could get bogged down in riparian exclosures and wolves, both complex issues that can’t be captured in sound bites. We could discuss whether grazing or fire or overrest are causing more “dusting” of the West. Truth is you and I want the same things. Oh, that we could be allies instead of adversaries.

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