Holding up for an externality hero
What politician will have the courage to price food right?
I used the Climate Hero calculator for an all-around review of my family’s environmental footprint. I have to say that I was pleased to read the intro remarks mentioning that Westerners in general have emissions around 10 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) per year, and that we should aim for about 2 tons per person. That 80% reduction is a scary but necessary cut, and a figure I recall from classic texts such as the sadly departed David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air (2008). Obviously, doing the little things like changing lightbulbs isn’t going to be quite enough to so drastically decrease our footprint.
The bad news is that my own carbon footprint calculation still clocks in at about 7 tons per year.
My family’s foodprint is pretty good: we eat a fully vegan diet (more than 90% home-cooked), support some local growers, and religiously avoid food waste. We could make a greater effort to avoid buying out-of-season fruit (e.g., fresh berries in winter) less often and reduce my husband’s coffee consumption, but the improvement would be somewhat marginal. My priority is to get my family to continue eating a plant-based diet, so I have little interest in further policing their choices.
However, we currently have a gas-powered SUV (though we do not drive it more than 10,000 km annually) and take a couple of plane trips per year. We live in an apartment, which is climate-friendly, but the recent heat domes and forest fire smoke events in Vancouver have led us to install air conditioning units. (Good example, sadly, of a negative feedback loop.) That’s where most of our excess emissions come from.
Our climate excesses are definitely reflecting our wish for convenience and speed. For example, from an energy standpoint, instead of owning our own SUV, it would be more efficient for us to rely on shared cars (we have an excellent system here in Vancouver) and occasionally rent a minivan when going to the cabin or need to carry lots of gear. In fact, we did try that approach in the past when we only had a smaller car. Unfortunately, the amount of coordination required to go to and from car rental places with the two children (especially when they were using car seats) drove us nuts. If we lived in Europe, where cars, parking, and gas are priced in a way that reflects externalities better, we would probably bear the inconvenience and rent a bigger vehicle when we need it, instead of owning one year-round. However, for the foreseeable future, we will keep our SUV, knowing that our next vehicle will likely be a much smaller electric car. (Bigger electric vehicles may not be significantly better for the climate, since the batteries need to be so big.)
A similar reasoning can be applied to the foodprint. At the moment, meat prices do not reflect all the social and environmental costs of animal-heavy diets. A German study recently published in Nature Communications estimated that taking the cost of GHG emissions into consideration would increase the cost of conventional beef by 146% and dairy by 91%, but only add 33% to the price of legumes* (Pieper, Michalke & Gaugler, 2020). Based on today’s price at the Save-On Foods supermarket in Vancouver (Canada), strictly reflecting climate (and not health) externalities, a 1-pound beef tenderloin steak would cost approximately $85, and a pound of ground beef almost $20. Those prices do not even reflect the healthcare costs of meat consumption. I would surmise that truly “all inclusive” prices would lead to a decrease in meat sales and changes in dietary patterns.
As my own family’s transportation example demonstrates, personal good will is insufficient to change behavior across the board. It’s a good place to start — as we do with diet — but a terrible place to stop. Structural changes, however, could lead to solutions. What politician will have the courage to implement measures such as carbon-and-health taxes on meat?
* Lest I get accused of cherry-picking results, note that the price of cereals would have to increase by 72% to consider climate externalities — but cereals are currently quite cheap compared to animal products.
MacKay, David (2008 for the revised edition). Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air.
Pieper, M., Michalke, A. & Gaugler, T. Calculation of external climate costs for food highlights inadequate pricing of animal products. Nat Commun 11, 6117 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19474-6
The author, Brigitte Gemme, is a healthy vegan cooking mentor at Vegan Family Kitchen and author of the book Flow in the Kitchen: Practices for Healthy Stress-Free Vegan Cooking. She dreams of a new day where the pillars of lifestyle medicine hold up the roof of planetary health, creating a more meaningful and compassionate world for all.
Got ideas along the same lines? Know of any initiatives aligned with similar principles? Share what you know and think in the comments! And keep on cooking.