Taxing meat would help slow global warming, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change. By reducing consumer demand, such a levy would curb one of the leading causes of climate change: methane emissions from livestock.
Carbon dioxide gets all the headlines, but methane is actually 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And cows are the principal offender when it comes to methane emissions. "Domestic animals also belch and fart amazing quantities of greenhouse gases," The Economist pointed out recently. Raising those cows involves the production of other greenhouse gases, too, especially when farming involves deforestation. "In all," the magazine reports, "livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions."
It's not a big jump from scientific fact to fiscal remedy. Taxing undesirable commodities is a time-honored practice, both for regulation and revenue. At least in theory, a tax on meat is not unlike a tax on tobacco: both are tools for changing entrenched behaviors.
“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 authors of the Nature Climate Change article point out. “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.”
It's easy to poke fun at this sort of suggestion. Headline writers seem particularly unable to control themselves:
- Farmers raise stink over New Zealand 'fart tax'
- I've Heard of a Flat Tax, but a Flatulence Tax?
- Further rumblings over rural 'fart tax'
For all the obvious and inherent humor, the idea of taxing meat is not crazy and it's not new. Serious proposals for some sort of anti-methane meat tax have been floating around for at least a decade, and the idea has real science backing it up.
But it's not exactly a slam-dunk, either. We can all dream up things we'd like to tax out of existence. Like sugary sodas. Or excessive antibiotic use. Or inequality. All these tax innovations have something to be said for them. (Although I find many -- and especially those on food products -- to be unforgivably regressive, paternalistic, and haphazard.)
But sin taxes -- or to use the more dispassionate and technical term, Pigouvian taxes -- have a serious problem. They complicate the principal function of a tax system: raising money to pay for government.
Ultimately, taxes function best when they try to do the least. When we get fancy with our taxes -- trying to tailor them precisely to social and economic conditions -- we make them more complicated and burdensome.
Moreover, Americans are already inclined to see their tax system as heavy-handed. When lawmakers start using taxes to control us (rather than simply raise money from us), they run the risk of unleashing the inner libertarian that lurks within us (or at least within a large part of the electorate).
I'm not arguing that Pigouvian taxes have no place in a modern tax system. When the social costs of a particular behavior are serious enough, those levies make sense. And climate change may be exactly that sort of situation. I find the argument for taxing carbon to be compelling. And maybe, eventually, I'll come around on meat taxes, too.
But we should think twice before trying to engineer the personal behavior of millions of Americans. Sin taxes have a role to play. But it's not a big one.