Taxing food to fund carbon removal could devastate global food security

March 17, 2021
A plan to tax groceries to fight climate change would hurt the poor the most. (AP Image/File)

A plan to tax groceries to fight climate change would hurt the poor the most. (AP Image/File)

Adding the costs of greenhouse gas removal to food prices through taxes could help combat climate change but would also lead to considerable increases in food prices that would disproportionately impact poor countries, researchers in Switzerland say in a paper published Wednesday.

Carbon removal, which includes both natural techniques like planting trees and experimental technology that is currently prohibitively expensive, will play an important effort in removing greenhouse gases from the air to help mitigate climate change, according to climate researchers. And since food production accounts for nearly one-third of global greenhouse gas output, pricing the cost of removing greenhouse gases into food prices would theoretically have the dual benefits of funding carbon removal and discouraging consumption of pollution-heavy food products such as beef, researchers wrote in a PLOS One paper

"We started looking into what would be, basically, the internalized cost of offsetting through carbon removal for agricultural products," said lead author Nicoletta Brazzola, a Ph.D. student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, in an interview with The Academic Times. "This kind of approach to mitigation of agricultural emissions — in developing countries it would really hit the poorest households."

The disparity between potential impacts in developing and developed countries is due to the fact that food is already quite expensive in wealthy countries, Brazzola and her Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich co-authors Jan Wohland and Anthony Patt found.

For example, beef currently costs consumers about $12.50 per kilogram in the U.S., compared to an average $4.45 per kilogram globally. 

Mitigating the emissions associated with a single kilogram of beef over the next 80 years to keep emissions within Paris Agreement goals of 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius of warming would cost between $2.60 and $5.10 per kilogram, the researchers found. Therefore, a global carbon removal tax would represent a 21% to 41% increase in beef prices for Americans, while consumers around the world would experience a much larger price surge of 58% to 115%. 

"It depends on the current price of beef, so for example if you would take a country like the United States or Switzerland, the cost of beef is very high compared to the global average," Brazzola said. "In certain high-income countries, where overconsumption of emissions-intensive products is an issue, this approach could facilitate a transition towards more sustainable diets."

While beef consumption is concentrated in wealthier countries, Brazzola and her coauthors also examined how carbon pricing could affect rice, which is a relatively cheap dietary staple around the world and provides more than 20% of global calorie consumption. 

Rice costs $1.58 per kilogram in the U.S. and $0.39 per kilogram around the world. Offsetting the carbon effects of rice production would cost $0.10 to $0.20 per kilogram, leading to a price increase of 7% to 14% in the U.S. and 29% to 57% around the world — an inconvenience for Western consumers and a potentially deadly crisis in poorer countries.

"I don't think this would be a realistic option in many developing countries, especially where food security is a concern," Patt said. "I can't imagine that politicians would be willing there to more than double consumer prices on these foods." 

Carbon pricing for milk, however, would hurt American consumers more than those in poorer countries because milk is cheaper in the U.S. than the rest of the world. 

Milk would prices surge by 20% to 40% in the U.S. from its current price of $0.85 per kilogram, while increasing by just 11% to 21% for global consumers from its current price of $1.61 per kilogram. 

The researchers' price increase estimates are so wide in part because it's unclear how carbon capture techniques will change in the coming decades, Brazzola said. Natural carbon capture techniques like planting trees require vast amounts of space that could otherwise be used for industry and housing, while carbon capture technology must become significantly cheaper to be deployed on a mass scale. 

"Although we expect a decrease in cost with the widespread adoption of these technologies, there are no certainties about how much the technology costs will decrease... That could be a constraining factor," Brazzola said.

And then there's the issue of the political feasibility of taxing beef, which has turned into a culture war battle in the U.S. despite the fact that it is far from actual political consideration. Republican politicians have accused Democrats of seeking to ban hamburgers in order to fight climate change, and two Republican congressmen went as far as to eat hamburgers and drink milkshakes at a press conference to protest U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's comment that, "Maybe we shouldn't be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner." 

Brazzola said she wants to examine the political feasibility and impact of carbon removal policies in the future, and is currently studying public perceptions of meat substitutes that are better for the environment. 

She said it is important to not place too much of an emphasis on carbon removal to address climate change, and that reducing emissions in the first place should be a top priority for policymakers. 

"It's important to not over-rely on carbon removal," Brazzola said. 

The study, "Offsetting unabated agricultural emissions with CO2 removal to achieve ambitious climate targets," published on March 17 in PLOS One, was authored by Nicoletta Brazzola, Jan Wohland and Anthony Patt, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich.

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