Tax Carbon, Not Meat Part 2: Fossil Fuels are the Climate Problem, not Animals

Tax Carbon, Not Meat Part 2: Fossil Fuels are the Climate Problem, not Animals
Sow and piglet foraging in winter.


By Ryan M. Katz-Rosene

Besides the various agricultural production practices outlined in part one of this blog, many cite the atmospheric impacts of farm animals themselves as a reason to tax meat. However, direct GHG emissions from animals, known as “biospheric emissions,” are qualitatively different from those of fossil fuels, and in some ways less damaging for the climate. For instance, animals (and humans) breathe out CO2 all the time, but clearly this is of little concern since the amount emitted is equivalent to the amount removed from the atmosphere by the plants recently eaten by those animals. In contrast, CO2 emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels is a serious problem for the global carbon cycle, because it takes carbon sequestered in the earth for hundreds of millions of years and puts it into the atmosphere.

This temporal difference between biospheric and fossil-fuel emissions can also be seen in methane and nitrous oxide. Methane can be emitted naturally by domesticated and wild ruminants (such as cows, deer, elk, moose, goats, sheep, and bison), wetlands, rice paddies, and termites; but it can also be emitted unwittingly by an oil drilling operation, or burned up in a heating furnace. In the case of fossil methane, the embedded carbon is, again, transferred to the atmosphere after being sequestered in the Earth’s crust since long before humans existed.

Emissions of nitrous oxide operate in a similar way. Animal urine and dung contains ammonia (NH3), which plays an essential role as a natural fertilizer; however, it releases N20 into the atmosphere. The rate of release is about the same for synthetic fertilizers, but the key difference is that synthetic fertilizers must be externally manufactured in an energy-intensive process relying on hydrocarbons, and have further been shown to degrade agricultural soils. In short, the biospheric exchange of carbon and nitrogen between soil, animal, and atmosphere takes part within natural surface-level cycles, while GHGs from fossil fuels are a synthetic disturbance to those cycles.

Biospheric emissions can indeed become a problem when the size of the global herd outstrips the natural environment’s capacity to recycle those emissions. The trick is determining an appropriate size limit for the herd. We know that the climate can sustain a large number of ruminants; there were 30 to 60 million methane-belching, ammonia-excreting bison and 100 million small antelope in the Great Plains before industrialization (to compare, there are currently about 104 million cattle in the US and Canada combined).

The crucial need is to offset the animals’ biospheric emissions by feeding them natural plants that grow in their own environment, which stores carbon in the soil. In typical farmed pastures, the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil is often equivalent to half (or less) of the amount emitted above ground in the form of methane and nitrous oxide, but other agro-ecological settings (such as silvopastoral operations which combine livestock grazing with forestry) can store more than they emit, leading many experts (including even the Food and Agricultural Organization) to claim that the livestock sector could play a significant role in climate change mitigation efforts.

Although we are still learning about the intricate interplay between biospheric emissions and climate, there is enough evidence to question the global herd’s impact on atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide. For instance, a study by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency found that while the global herd grew in the 1990s, global methane concentrations levelled off at the same time. The report concluded, “The role of ruminants in greenhouse gases may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting.” Finally, while the global herd has grown substantially since the 1970s, in OECD nations the number of cattle, sheep, and goats has declined while the number of pigs has grown. In other words, the demand trend for ruminant meat in industrialized countries — where the meat tax is usually proposed — is already on the decline.

Theoretically, taxing meat in the developing world and Asia would work to stem growth in the global herd, but this approach raises issues of equity, particularly between small farmers and large industrial producers, not to mention its unwelcome tinge of colonialism. If indeed the global herd has surpassed the climate’s natural threshold for biospheric emissions, then there are other ways — not adversely affecting extensive and agro-ecological farmers — to reduce the herd besides taxing meat. Regulations, quotas, incentives for sustainable producers, or educational campaigns expounding the benefits of eating less meat — and local, organic meat at that! — would all be more effective than a meat tax.

There are indeed good reasons to reduce meat consumption overall — particularly in industrialized economies, where the overconsumption of food is a serious health concern — but taxing meat is not the way to accomplish that goal. After all, it’s not just meat that citizens in industrial economies overconsume, and it’s not just livestock production that is environmentally damaging. Further, while less meat might be consumed overall because of a meat tax, the meat available would likely be environmentally damaging industrial meat, not agro-ecological meat.

Finally, a tax on meat unfairly punishes small farmers trying to practise restorative agriculture by forcing them to compete toe-to-toe with large-scale industrial producers whose environmental footprint is only partly accounted for (as seen in part one). More importantly, it fails to get to the root of the climate problem, which is the emission of GHGs from fossil fuels. Some provinces in Canada have opted for a carbon tax, which will help reduce the agricultural emissions of greatest concern to the climate — those associated with fossil fuels — while providing agro-ecological farmers with a more level footing to compete with the big agricultural polluters.

This article was originally published by Policy Options/Options Politiques on 25 January 2017

Ryan M. Katz-Rosene is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies and an organic farmer based in Cantley, Quebec.


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