Agriculture is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse emissions, but who pays for these environmental costs?
- A new study shows that food products fail to include their environmental costs in their price.
- If meat products included the cost of their carbon footprints, their prices would more than double.
- Policies to factor in these costs could change food consumption in ways that lower carbon emissions.
When people think of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, they often tend to picture urban sources. Images of coal-burning factories, giant sport utility vehicles backed up in endless traffic jams, and energy-guzzling McMansions immediately come to mind.
This conception is not entirely correct, as a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions come from rural areas and agricultural production. Globally, a quarter of all such emissions come from agriculture. In the United States, 10 percent of all emissions have an agricultural source, roughly equal to the amount that comes from commercial and residential sources.
A new study from Augsburg University in Germany published in Nature Communications considers the carbon cost of food. Its findings could have serious ramifications for the environment, your wallet, and your diet.
The real price of what you eat
Many times, the costs of a product aren't fully reflected in the price paid for it. This is the case for the carbon footprint of many foods, as the cost of putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as part of their production isn't featured in the price at all, but is instead shifted onto the environment, society as a whole, or future generations. Suggestions that these external costs should be pushed back on the producers have been floating around for some time. In a way, this is done with various products, such as taxes on gasoline.
This study expands on previous efforts to find out what those external costs are when food is concerned.
Using life-cycle assessment (LCA) tools, the researchers determined when emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane occurred in the food production process. The effects of land use, including deforestation, related to food production were also incorporated.
The results were striking. Meat and dairy products are incredibly undervalued according to this measure. Pricing in the climate damage caused by their production would raise their prices by 146 percent and 91 percent, respectively. The prices of organic plant products would also rise, but by a mere 6 percent. Organic foods, in general, saw lower price increases than conventionally produced food products.
These findings are in agreement with (though larger) than the findings of previous studies. Study author Dr. Tobias Gaugler, an economist at Augsburg, expressed surprise at the magnitude of the results:
"We ourselves were surprised by the big difference between the food groups investigated and the resulting mispricing of animal-based food products in particular."
What would happen if the prices were corrected?
If adjusted, the prices of conventionally produced meat and animal products such as eggs and milk would skyrocket. Organic products would see their costs increase as well, though this would mostly result from having to ship more food around, as organic practices lead to lower crop yields per unit area. The cost difference between organic and non-organically produced food would narrow.
Study author Amelie Michalke of the University of Greifswald argued that more honest pricing would lead to changes in consumption habits:
"If these market mispricing errors were to cease to exist or at least be reduced, this would also have a major impact on the demand for food. A food that becomes significantly more expensive will also be much less in demand."
Particular food products are thought to be governed by the standard laws of supply and demand; if the price of one type of food rises, people will switch to another. If this is true, then a more accurate pricing of these products would presumably lead to significant changes in food consumption habits.
The authors have expressed their desire to continue investigating the environmental effects of agriculture, perhaps following this study with a dive into nitrogen emissions.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the movement towards a shorter work week is not just a solution to inequality, but one also aimed at stabilizing the environment.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the movement towards a shorter work week is not just a solution to inequality, but one also aimed at stabilizing the environment, writes Professor Greg Marston, from the School of Social Science at The University of Queensland.
In his essay for the Green Institute, 'The Environmental Impacts of a UBI and a Shorter Working Week', Marston outlines how the process and debate surrounding UBI allows us to confront difficult questions within our society about how we live and work now, and how we should be living and working. After all, how do we give everyone access to a better life?
Many countries around the world have begun experimenting with the idea, including the Netherlands, Finland, and Canada. The results of these studies are still pending. However, a review of the data from a study done in the 1970s in Manitoba, Canada revealed just how much some extra cash can do to correct inequalities early on.
The data revealed there was a 9 percent reduction in working hours among new mothers and teen boys. The new mothers used the extra cash to extend their maternity leaves and spend more time with their babies, and teenage boys no longer had to drop out of school to support their families, resulting in more boys graduating with high school degrees. These families could afford to keep their sons in school because of basic income.
A UBI has the power to change much of what we might consider our consumer culture, tipping our values in a different direction, says Marston, one less reliant on materials. “We might see less reliance on the daily commute from the urban fringe to the city center to work during the week, and on the weekends people may also rely less on traveling to shopping malls to spend their disposable income on a mix of necessities and luxuries alike.”
A shorter work week would help further these carbon reductions, argue economists David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot. For example, they say, if the United States were to adopt standard European working hours, the U.S. could reduce emissions by 7 percent, according to their report.
There’s even further evidence for how a three-day weekend can affect energy consumption. Back in 2007, Utah shortened the work week to four days for its state employees. It extended its Monday to Thursday hours and eliminated the Friday workday.
“In its first ten months, the move saved the state at least $1.8 million in energy costs. Fewer working days meant less office lighting, less air conditioning, and less time spent running computers and other equipment—all without even reducing the total number of hours worked.”
However, normal hours resumed for state employees back in 2011 after complaints of being unable to access services on Fridays. People weren’t used to being barred access to certain services on a Friday, but if this policy were adopted evenly across the state, perhaps it would have been better received.
Like all radical new policies and ideas, our society will need to engage with them by asking for evidence. Is this policy sustainable and does it provide us with a better lifestyle?
“Whatever specific social policy reforms are debated and adopted in the future,” Marston writes, ”the justification for ‘welfare’ will need to be reframed in terms of human security and genuine sustainability, rather than facilitating labor market participation at whatever personal and environmental cost.”
More than 630 companies are calling out President-elect Donald Trump in an open letter. It asks him to keep the promises the United States made during the Paris Agreement and move us closer to a low-carbon economy.
More than 630 companies are calling-out President-elect Donald Trump in an open letter. It asks him to keep the promises the United States made during the Paris Agreement and move us closer to a low-carbon economy. But will the private sector have any more luck moving Trump to believe in climate change?
The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark achievement. The world’s nations—196 of them—came together in agreement to put promises in place to slow the coming climate change. At its core the Paris Agreement aims to transition the world's economy away from dependency on fossil fuels, signaling to businesses that the future will be driven by clean energy. More than 630 companies want to continue that trend, agreeing climate change poses a real threat to how we do business.
Trump has lined his cabinet with, mostly, climate change deniers. He has even indicated he may try to withdraw the United States from this agreement. In response, other nations could impose a “carbon tariff” on goods from the United States. Not great for business.
“Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” the letter states. “But the right action now will create jobs and boost US competitiveness. We pledge to do our part, in our own operations and beyond, to realize the Paris Agreement’s commitment of a global economy that limits global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.”
Kelloggs was one of the signatories of the letter, and also one of many companies who pulled ads from Breitbart, a right-wing news organization that regularly calls climate change a “hoax” and a “conspiracy.”
As to why Kelloggs pulled their ads from the site, Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Kelloggs explained: “We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company. We recently reviewed the list of sites where our ads can be placed and decided to discontinue advertising on Breitbart.com. We are working to remove our ads from that site.”
It seems climate change is a part of that company's values. Other companies who signed the letter include Elon Musk's SolarCity, Adidas, eBay, DuPont, Patagonia and HP. However, it's difficult to say if these gestures against climate-change denial or in support of the Paris Agreement will sway the President-elect.