Lord Stern of Brentford has called for people to stop eating meat (or at least significantly reduce their consumption, it’s not clear), as:
Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the worldâ€™s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.
Leaving aside the jokes about noted vegetarians, is this a good idea, and what does it say about the debate on climate change?
I have no problem with people who don’t eat meat. Indeed, some of my best friends are vegetarians. If people want to give up meat, whether on environmental, taste or ethical grounds, then they should. A vegetarian diet is better for the planet.
Yet Lord Stern’s words highlight one of the thorniest problems surrounding the debate over climate change: the refusal to argue for pricing externalities properly. The impact of humanity of climate change (however great that impact is) can be reduced by two means. Advances in technology and a change in behaviour. It is right that governments and companies continue to invest in technological research, but given the current ineffectiveness of other sources of power (except nuclear), a change in people’s behaviour is also necessary in order to reduce carbon emissions.
So how is this change to be effected? There are three possible, and not necessarily contradictory, methods. Firstly, the law. By banning certain devices/process, rationing, or giving companies/individuals legally-binding environmental targets, you can reduce carbon emissions. While not without merit, using the law too much would be draconian and could quite easily make the situation worse.
The second way is to change people’s mentalities. So people fly less, don’t use cars and other motorised vehicles as much, eat less meat, use less energy and so on because they want to. This is problematic because how do you get people to change their mind in sufficient numbers in order to have an impact? It is not helped by the fact that some governments and high-profile activists are amongst the worst emitters around (or were, in some cases). People don’t respond well to hypocrisy.
That leaves the proper pricing of externalities. An externality is an economic term for the impact of an event or process on somebody not directly involved in it. Externalities can be negative (a factory dumping waste into a river which ruins the river), or positive (walking past a baker’s in the morning and smelling warm bread). Carbon emissions are a negative externality, as they contribute to climate change (as far as we can tell). Therefore they should be taxed in proportion to the damage that they do. This would lead to a reduction in carbon emissions, as people would have more incentive to emit less.
Sadly, few people are prepared to argue for this. One of the most effective ways to price emissions is to tax oil and gas use (note: not companies) more heavily. This could be done without actual hardship for the vast majority of people, but it would make running TVs, computers, boiling kettles, and so forth more expensive. Anyone who calls for higher energy prices though is swiftly attacked from all sides.
Given the current ineffectiveness of alternative power sources, policymakers have two real options. Either carry on as before, or make a clear and honest case for higher taxes on energy (which could then be offset by cuts in income tax and rises in the state pension). People’s lifestyles will suffer, but either you believe that carbon emissions need to be cut, or they don’t. If you believe the former, then energy prices need to rise. The same goes for meat prices.
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Filed in: Environmentalism