Consumer carbon taxes seem to cause something akin to hysteria among Canadian conservatives. The federal leader of the Conservative party endlessly repeats his slogan “axe the tax,” meaning of course the federal carbon tax. Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe has said he won’t collect it, and Premier Danielle Smith of Alberta accuses it of being another stick for Justin Trudeau to beat her province’s oil industry to death with.

How, I wonder, would they react if someone proposed a carbon tax on cows. This is exactly what the government of Denmark has done. Starting in 2030, it will tax livestock farmers for the greenhouse gases emitted by their cows, sheep and pigs—a world first.

The concern is methane. The gas is shorter-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide but is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 87 times more heat on a 20-year timescale. And cows produce a lot of methane. Livestock account for about a third of human-caused methane emissions, mostly from cows. Apparently when you have to process your food through four stomach compartments, you do a lot of belching.

That belching helps make agriculture Denmark’s biggest source of emissions. On average, Danish dairy cows emit 5.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year, so in 2030 their livestock farmers will be paying annually, after a tax break, $130 per cow rising to $340 by 2035.

Farmers in Europe have been up in arms recently over environmental policies, but the Danish government consulted widely with farmers, the industry and unions to reach agreement. Apparently the Danish dairy industry broadly welcomed the deal and its goals. The tax bill is yet to be approved by parliament but is expected to pass after the broad consensus.

Aside from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a carbon tax on livestock might also reduce the amount of meat eaten, a very good thing in itself. Supplying ourselves with protein by eating meat is ridiculously inefficient. It takes about 25 kilos of plant protein to produce one kilo of beef protein.

The environmental harm is frightening. Seventy-five percent of all agricultural land is used for animal production even though it only provides a third of global protein. The greatest cause of biodiversity loss is habitat loss and the major cause of habitat loss is our global food system. By cutting out meat we could return vast tracts of land (and water) to nature, to other species, rather than exterminating them in order to feed animals we fill our bellies with.

If the damage caused by animal production seems hard to believe, keep in mind that livestock make up 62 percent of the world’s mammal biomass, humans 34 percent; and wild mammals only four percent.

Denmark, in accepting the contribution of its agricultural industry to environmental harm and taking action, is setting an example for the rest of us. Denmark is, after all, a large dairy and pork exporter.

So what about Canada? We have a lot more cows than Denmark. And agriculture is responsible for 31 percent of our methane emissions, most coming from burping beef and dairy cattle.

In fact, there are many more cows in Alberta alone than there are in Denmark. So what about a carbon tax on cows in this province? If one is suggested, I can hardly imagine the hysteria among our conservative friends.

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