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UK Sugar, Carbon Taxes Could Produce £3.6B in Revenue, Reduce Emissions by 19M Tonnes

Could the health and environmental benefits of taxes on sugary drinks and carbon-intensive foods outweigh the out-of-pocket costs? New research from Oxford University and the University of Reading suggests that is indeed the case. A study published in BMC Public Health found that a combination of a sugar tax on soft drinks and a food-based carbon tax in the United Kingdom could raise £3.6 billion in revenue, reduce carbon emissions by 19 million tonnes, and increase life expectancy.

The researchers modelled the economic, environmental, and health effects of four tax scenarios with various combinations of a £2.86-per tonne carbon tax, a 20% tax on sugary drinks and subsidised purchasing of low emitting foods.

All of the tax scenarios predicted decreases in the purchase of beef, lamb, and other meats except pork and poultry and corresponding drops in deaths from heart disease and cancer. They also all predicted greenhouse gas emissions between 16.5 and 18.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

“Our study demonstrates that a food carbon tax could have meaningful effects on greenhouse gas emissions without harming health. Small tweaks to the design of the tax, such as a tax on soft drinks, can result in significant improvements to population health without dramatically reducing the effect on emission reductions,” lead researcher Adam Briggs said.

Briggs suggests that the health benefits of sugar and carbon taxes could be two-fold: they could reduce individuals’ health risks due to their lower consumption of sugary drinks and carbon-intensive meats, as well as reduce the wider effects on society thanks to the associated emissions reduction.

“Some studies have found that diets low in greenhouse gases are also better for health, mainly arising from people eating less meat and more plants,” he explained. “However, some foods buck this trend, for example sugar is low in greenhouse gas emissions yet bad for health. To counter this problem, we modelled the effects of a food carbon-tax alongside a 20% tax on sugary soft drinks. We estimated the effect on food purchases.”

The two scenarios that did not include subsidies for low emission foods predicted revenues of £3 billion (without a sugary drink tax) and £3.4 billion (with a sugary drink tax).

Briggs added that agriculture is responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which result in externalities paid for by society as a whole. “Examples include the health effects of global warming from extreme weather, changing global disease patterns, and airborne pollution, as well as changes to food production patterns and overall availability of energy resources,” he said.

“A well designed carbon tax could be an important addition to policies aimed at reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions.”

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