Could a meat tax work?

Well, it depends what you want it to do. 

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Caroline Lucas has called for parliament to “seriously consider” a new tax on meat to reflect its impact on the environment and to fund intiatives to make the British farming industry carbon neutral.

The call is smart politics on Lucas’s part: proposing eye-catching and conversation-starting green initiatives. It’s exactly what the Green Party should be doing in a First Past the Post electoral system, in which its main functions are to allow voters to “send a message” to the major parties and to provide cloud cover for other parties to adopt less maximal positions that are more radical than the thin gruel currently on offer as far as environmental policy from the big two go.

So as far as the Green Party of England and Wales goes, the policy is a big thumbs up. But would it work in practice?

The important thing to note here is that a “meat tax” isn’t one policy in the same way that “taxing the rich” is not one policy, and can mean higher rates of income tax, taxes on property wealth, share dividends, or so on.

So a lot depends on what type of meat tax and where you end up levying it.

There are two environmental issues at work here: the first is the carbon cost of meat production in general, the second are the implications for biodiversity of some meat production.

As far as directly reducing emissions goes, there is already a financial benefit to cutting meat out of your diet, and I am not convinced that you could introduce a new tax that would change the financial cost enough and be politically survivable for the government that introduced it.

But you could use the extra revenue from a smaller increase for a broader programme of decarbonisation and off-setting, and if you levied it at the right points in the supply chain you would also incentivise lower-carbon and/or biodiversity-friendly approaches.

A meat tax might be a good revenue raiser if levied directly on meat products and could change behaviour if levied at the right points in the production chain, but might not raise much money. So a meat tax could work – it just depends what sort of meat tax you want and what the work you want it to do is.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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