As Americans prepare for their Thanksgiving Day feasts, there's an issue on the horizon that could make that turkey more expensive: taxing meat to reduce climate change.
Livestock is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, adding about the same amount of emissions as that of all the world's vehicles, according to a new report from the U.K. policy institute Chatham House. But many consumers aren't aware of the link between their dinner plates and climate change, the report notes.
At the same time, meat consumption is forecast to increase by 76 percent over the next several decades, thanks to rising incomes in developing countries that will boost demand for animal protein. Taking some policy steps -- such as a meat tax -- to make animal protein less appealing would help curtail demand and lower the impact on the environment, the researchers recommended. But wouldn't that backfire, given how much people love their burgers?
Not so, according to surveys carried out by Chatham House researchers, who found that consumers in countries including the U.S. and Brazil were more receptive to the idea than one might suspect.
Respondents thought that a backlash against a meat tax "would be short-lived, particularly if people understood the policy rationale," the report notes.
The researchers didn't ask respondents what type of tax they would feel would be bearable, said Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow at Chatham House. Respondents were receptive to labeling on meat that would alert consumers about the link to climate change, he said. Nevertheless, he added, "there would have to be price interventions if we are to change behavior."
The first step is simply informing consumers about the link between livestock and climate change, given that the survey found that awareness of the issue was low across all countries. The low awareness may be due to the fact that there are widespread government programs to encourage consumers to conserve energy, for instance, although such programs are lacking when it comes to the impact of eating meat.
The link between livestock and climate change isn't unknown, given that almost a decade ago the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization warned that the meat in consumer diets was releasing more greenhouse gases than transportation.
But that hasn't trickled down to widespread public awareness to the same extent that consumers are aware of the impact of car emissions -- which has driven the surging popularity of fuel-efficient cars such as Toyota's Prius -- or the benefits of recycling.
"People have generally not read or heard about the connection, and may struggle to reconcile it with their own understanding of how emissions occur," the Chatham House researchers noted.
Aside from the environmental impact, residents of developed nations have another issue on their plates: they are on average eating twice as much meat as is considered healthy, while Americans eat about three times what's considered healthy, the report notes.
Not all animals have the same impact on greenhouse gases, with the report singling out ruminant animals -- cows, sheep, and goats -- as more destructive than poultry or pigs. Added together, the livestock industry is contributing about 15 percent of the world's total greenhouse gases, the researchers said.
Reducing meat consumption may be tough for some consumers to swallow. The researchers found that Americans said eating meat "was a very important American thing to do," Froggatt said. In China, respondents aligned meat-eating with status and wealth.
"Meat has significant cultural ramifcations and to cultural identity," he added.
Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and tobacco -- both products that have been linked with serious health issues -- have succeeded in reducing consumption. But meat lovers won't need to take to the streets in protest quite yet. As it stands now, there are major roadblocks to changing the way consumers and governments act, ranging from the lack of awareness of the issue to lawmakers' fear of a backlash.
Froggatt said he's hopeful that consumers can change their diets, given the success policy makers have had with encouraging consumers to cut back on tobacco and sugar-sweetened drinks.
"If you look back at the 60s and the issues about smoking, there was an image change that was necessary," he said. "Food and meat is challenging from a cultural perspective, but cultural attitudes change over time."