You are a centrist government in a democratic Western country. You want to be seen to be taking action on the environment, but you believe in consumer capitalism, and therefore wouldn’t dare to dismantle the profit-making machinery that actually contributes most of the CO2 within your economy. You praise the ideals of the Green New Deal, only because you know it will never become reality.
Your target must be insignificant economically, yet high-profile in its symbolic value. Meat works perfectly. Eating it already has an aura of hedonistic licentiousness, and restricting consumption covers several bases – animal cruelty, public health, and most importantly, climate change resulting from intensive livestock farming. You will get years of headlines, just as when you banned plastic bags or forced people to pay deposits on plastic bottles.
From brat to wurst? Germany proposes beefing up meat tax to battle climate change
But you can’t just ban meat. Or ration it to 200 grams a week for every citizen. Because that would be considered an authoritarian intrusion that fundamentally violates your people’s freedom.
You try to turn it into a just cause. Activist organizations have been lobbying for this longer than you have been in power, and PETA will have the factory farming pictures. Scientists will supply the studies (take only the ones that support your view). You leverage entirely hypothetical but impressive sounding research such as the 2016 Oxford University one that claimed that going vegetarian would save 8 million lives and $1.5 trillion, or one that alleges that meat “kills” 2.4 million people a year around the world, or the one that says that the US going vegetarian would be the same as taking 60 million cars off the road.
Yet, even after the publicity campaign, you still can’t ban meat. This is the time for the moment of genius, the clever solution that squares the circle between a free populace and their paternalistic-minded rulers.
You put a tax on it. Not a declared one, but a stealth tax. Perhaps merely drop the VAT rebate that it enjoys, as was proposed in Germany, which currently taxes meat at 7 percent VAT, but is contemplating moving the levy to 19. You can have more meat – as much as you want – but you will pay more for the luxury, and there is a fairness to it too – the more schnitzel you consume the more dosh you dish out. Does the money go into environmental causes? Probably not – there is currently no way to separate meat VAT from others – but at least people will be nudged into the correct behaviors.
The fruits of your labors will be evident within months.
Being a wealthy lawmaker you will eat as much or as little meat as before, as food makes up a small proportion of your monthly budget. Your constituents – that is a different matter. Perhaps some will get the message, and eat more vegetables instead. Or perhaps, instead of buying organic, cruelty-free, carbon-neutral meat, they will now buy more factory-farmed meat. Or perhaps they will spend the money on a decent steak but will not be able to afford to repair their car, or take that holiday to the Balearics. Though I guess that could be a result in itself – after all, as a rule, the poorer someone is in the West, the less CO2 they emit. Some might be so deprived, however, that they will eat no meat at all. Their remaining money will now go to other, cheaper and more harmful high-calorie processed foods, like cakes or oven-fried chips. While your farmers will simply find it more profitable to export the food abroad, over longer distances, increasing their emissions. Is this what you wanted?
Oh, sin taxes, they used to be so simple when you were targeting the universally agreed-upon harms, such as smoking, with the aim of their complete eradication. But this is getting more nuanced now. Meat has been eaten by the homo sapiens since its emergence, and played an important role in its evolution. It still remains a key source of protein for your population. Ethically too, eating it is a source of legitimate pleasure to the sensory organs of millions. Is it the job of the government to strip its citizens of their daily pleasures, to literally deny adults the full choice of food for their dinner? What’s the morally correct trade-off between seven-course feasts of imported ostrich and elk and government-mandated buckwheat three times a day?
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You, the politicians, will complain that you are only using the tools at your disposal – that you can’t charge a poor person less at the meat counter, that you cannot ban a farmer from exporting his carcasses, or a supermarket from opting for cheaper transatlantic chicken over homegrown beef. But then is your clever solution any better than rationing books and Iron Curtain-style central planning?
You will say that at least it is better to be doing something.
And indeed you are right – it is the “something” that matters, not the specific results. After all if there is one thing that Greta Thunberg and Nigel Lawson can agree on is that creating a meat tax in Germany, Sweden and Denmark, the three countries that have shown the greatest appetite for this policy, will make almost no difference to global emissions. For example, even if every resident of the United States, the country with the highest consumption of meat per capita, stopped eating meat tomorrow, that would only slice 2.6 percent off its emissions. Meanwhile, a Chinese person now eats five times as much meat as they did in the 1980s, and still only half as much as Americans – so he wants more. And the world population will likely double by the end of the century. Germans eating two fewer sausages a week was never going to be more than a gesture, and everyone knows it.
Though bearing in mind other environmental policy perversities – like banning nuclear to rely on dirty coal, or incentivizing biofuels and, in the process, rainforest destruction – perhaps “negligible” is the best effect we can all hope for. And you get to enjoy your steak guilt-free.
By Igor Ogorodnev