A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Carbon Critical: Meat Tax Back on the Menu


Sausage-loving Germany is discussing raising taxes on meat. It’s a controversial idea whose time has come.

Artwork © Claude Cadi

As barbecue season comes to an end, Berlin is debating raising taxes on meat. The president of the German Animal Welfare Federation, Thomas Schroeder, kicked things off with a call to apply an “extra tax” on meat and use the revenue to improve conditions for livestock.

Politicians of all parties quickly took up the idea. Albert Stegemann, the agriculture spokesperson for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats CDU/CSU Bundestag caucus, told Die Welt it was a “constructive proposal,” though the revenues had to be used to help farmers switch to sustainable practices. His counterpart in the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Rainer Spiering, preferred ending the value-added tax (VAT) reduction for meat rather than creating a new tax. Most products in Germany are taxed at 19 percent, but many “basic supply” foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, coffee, sugar, (cow but not plant) milk, and meat enjoy a reduced rate of 7 percent.

Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the surging Green party, was skeptical of the usefulness of isolated tax hikes for certain products. Instead, he argued in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the entire VAT system needed to be rebuilt around “ecological nudging, coherence, and social effects.” Meanwhile, Martin Hofstetter, an agriculture expert at Greenpeace, said he preferred a tax at the slaughterhouse, whereby farmers would pay a tax per kilogram of meat. The proceeds would then go to “those farmers who want to reconstruct their farms in a way beneficial for the species and the environment.”

It is quite remarkable that the political middle—and the 56 percent of respondents to a Civey poll who support a VAT increase—agrees with the concept and is largely debating how to make meat more expensive. Just two years ago, SPD and CDU/CSU politicians flatly rejected a meat VAT hike proposed by the German Environment Agency. In 2013, the Greens triggered a veritable “shitstorm,” as the Germans are so fond of saying, by suggesting that public cafeterias should try serving only vegetarian dishes one day a week. The CDU general secretary at the time called it another “building block in the green Federal-Prohibition-Republic.”

A Chicken and Egg Problem

The theory behind a meat tax is quite simple: increasing the price of something reduces demand, and meat is particularly damaging to the environment. Emissions from livestock represent 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Cattle, by far the most greenhouse gas-intensive source of calories, is responsible for most of this, so simply switching from beef tenderloin to chicken salad can make a big difference. In Germany, agriculture emissions have fallen much less than emissions from industry or energy production in the last 30 years.

The tax would bring in enough money to make a difference. Journalist Christiane Grefe writes in Die Zeit that a VAT increase would bring in €4-5 billion a year, nearly as much as the Ministry for Food and Agriculture says is required to finance “comprehensive change” in the livestock sector.

However, to some extent proponents of meat taxes are pursuing different goals. A 2018 study by researchers at Oxford advocated taxing red meat on the grounds that humans are eating an unhealthy amount of it and burdening healthcare systems. Governments tend to be more willing to regulate citizens’ diets for health than climate reasons—think of taxes on sugary drinks—although rules about food are generally harder to stomach than subsidies for solar panels. Sweden and Denmark have discussed meat taxes in parliament, but even those climate trailblazers haven’t passed one; in Denmark the Greens’ proposal for a tax on beef, veal, and lamb went nowhere because other key parties said it was socially unfair.

Innovate Farming

While animal welfare advocates and climate campaigners both win if Germans eat less meat, there are ways to reduce emissions from agriculture without necessarily farming fewer animals. Feeding cows seaweed appears to significantly reduce the amount of methane the ruminants belch into the atmosphere. In “silvopasture” farming, the animals graze on tree-covered land that sequesters five to 10 times as much carbon as a typical pasture.

Silvopasture is just one of the agricultural techniques for turning farmland from a carbon sinner into a carbon sink—and these are vital innovations because of how culturally important meat is all over the world. The type of people who in July threatened a Leipzig kindergarten that stopped serving pork are as unwilling to compromise for the climate as they are to make concessions to Muslim food customs. And it remains to be seen if patriotic middle-class Chinese would be as happy to lead the world in pork restrictions as they are to dominate electric car production.

New farming techniques or not, there is no getting around the fact that humans, especially rich Westerners, have to eat less meat in order to prevent climate crisis. As a 2018 Nature study put it, “Greenhouse gas emissions cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets.” The IPCC’s landmark new report on land use emphasizes how much it matters what we put on our plates: every acre we use to grow soybeans for cows is an acre we cannot use to reforest the planet.

Legitimate Concerns

The parties skeptical of a VAT tax increase—the simplest measure to implement—also raised policy points in their statements to Die Welt. Gero Hocker, agriculture spokesperson for the business-friendly Free Democrats, worried that higher taxes would simply push consumers towards cheaper imported meats. VAT applies to imports, but meat produced cheaply in, say, Poland would face lower taxes in absolute terms.

The EU recently signed a trade deal with cattle powerhouse Brazil, where the Bolsonaro administration is looking the other way as the Amazon is deforested to be used as farmland. Both parties made a general commitment to “effectively implement the Paris Agreement,” but it’s the enforcement that counts. As a study by the organization Transport and Environment points out, violations of environmental protections are not subject to the same state-to-state dispute mechanism as are violations of commercial clauses. In an interview with Le Monde, Nicholas Hulot, who recently resigned as French environment minister, slammed the Brazil trade deal as “completely antithetical to our climate ambitions.”

Trading Pearls for Swine

One bright spot on the trade front is European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s intention to “introduce a carbon border tax to avoid carbon leakage.”

Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform points out that such a tax, which is based on the carbon content of a given good, is a bit like a VAT in that it is equally applicable to domestic and foreign products. Crucially, he adds, “it is still levied on imports whether there is a trade agreement in place or not.” So a carbon border tax is an excellent way to maintain free trade in the era of climate crisis, as well as use the EU’s economic weight to put pressure on its trade partners and make “climate leadership” more than a buzzword.

Exports are similarly tricky. Germany exports about half of the meat it produces, so the industry might decide to concentrate its efforts on exports to compensate for consumers who are deterred by the VAT.

FDP politician Hocker might well have made the same point about disadvantaging expensive organic meat, which would be taxed higher in absolute terms. Would the middle-class German gourmand decide to give up organics and go back to bargain meat from cows squashed in stalls and stuffed full of antibiotics? And the working-class shopper switch to processed meat, the unhealthiest of all? Some disgruntled consumers would certainly prefer to pay a few cents more per packet of ground beef than be forced into trying tofu.

This is why it is so important for Germany and the EU to pair any new taxes with programs to encourage more sustainable meat (and plant-based alternatives). Greenpeace reports that the EU pays about €30 billion a year to livestock or animal fodder farms, giving Brussels the power to change behavior with new criteria for receiving subsidies.   

The Hard Work Begins

Even the agriculture spokesperson for the climate-denying Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) called for a mandatory labelling system instead of a tax. Polls show there is a lot of potential to get those who can afford it to voluntarily pay more for more sustainable, humane meat.

Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner, a member of the CDU, is not known for her willingness to take on big business, to put it kindly, but from 2020 she is introducing a mandatory, unified labeling system for pork to replace the flawed, voluntarily system supermarkets are currently using.

Political leaders have been talking about an energy transition for decades. But as the climate crisis starts to bite, policymakers are starting to tell voters the hard truth: switching to renewable energy and driving Priuses won’t be enough to avert climate crisis. Our burgers will have to taste different, too. As such, the new battleground in the fight to save the planet is the kitchen.