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WINK WINK, NUDGE NUDGE

The UK published a Net Zero report about taxing beef and flights—and then deleted it

JORGE SILVA / REUTERS
Where's the beef (tax)?
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

Looking into the Future of Capitalism

Published

The UK government knows that it’ll have to take difficult decisions to achieve its goal of being a net zero emissions economy by 2050. It’ll have to consider taxing beef, levying carbon taxes on flights, and finding other ways to modify the behaviors of consumers and producers from on high.

It knows all this. It just doesn’t want anyone to know that it knows all this.

On Tuesday (Oct. 19), on its official web site, the UK government published a 56-page report compiled by the Behavioural Insights Team, a firm that began as a seven-person unit within the government in 2011, and that is still partly owned by the Cabinet Office. The report suggests methods based on behavioral economics—specifically, on “nudge” policies that guide people into one kind of decision over another—to speed the transition towards the UK’s net zero goals.

Within hours, though, the report was scrubbed from the web site. (Quartz downloaded a copy before it vanished. Read the UK’s deleted report, titled “Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives,” here.) The Behavioural Insights Team told Quartz it couldn’t comment on why its report was removed. A government spokesperson told the Guardian that the document was an “academic research paper,” adding: “We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour in this way.”

The UK’s deleted Net Zero report has bold ideas about getting to Net Zero

If the spokesperson is to be believed, then it’s a pity that the government has no intention to follow the report’s suggestions, because they are eminently sensible. In the past, nudge theory has earned criticism for being a paternalistic tactic, used by companies to influence unwitting consumers and by governments to shape society; it is so reliant on the aggregate benefit of thousands of small tweaks to individual behavior that it ignores the need for larger, structural changes to the economy itself.

But the deleted report doesn’t fall into that trap. It stresses repeatedly that the government has to act “upstream” and “midstream”—in the realms of companies and industries—more than “downstream,” at the level of individuals. It’s impractical to ask people to “swim against the current” and opt for green choices when their options are limited, the report says. It continues: “It’s hard to avoid plastic packaging when the shops are full of it; hard to drive an EV if you don’t have off-street parking to install a charge-point; hard to take the train when the plane is cheaper and quicker; hard to give up red meat when our shops, restaurants and cultural norms are brimming with it.”

To effect these changes, treat the climate crisis like the obesity crisis, the report suggests, harking back to the UK’s levy of a “Sugar Tax” on soft drinks. Begun in 2018, the tax successfully cut down the sugar consumption across the population. The report’s recommendations along those lines include a “producer- or retailer-facing tax” on foods like beef that have a high carbon footprint; levies on producers of emissions-intensive kinds of concrete or steel; forcing airlines to be transparent about their emissions, and imposing heavier carbon taxes; and disincentivizing business travel. “‘Frequent flyer’ should not be a badge of pride,” the report points out.

The UK needs big changes to get to Net Zero

Small behavioral shifts come with limitations. For one thing, enacting them can shrink the government and the public’s appetite for bigger, systemic changes, the deleted report warns. Then, even more emphatically, it points out that successful social initiatives such as reducing smoking, improving automotive safety, and increasing vaccine uptakes—and here the report switches to bold type—”have all involved taxes, bans, mandates and other regulatory measures beyond soft persuasion.” We do not, the report continues, “have time to nudge our way to Net Zero.”

But these big, top-down changes will undoubtedly meet with resistance from Conservatives and their constituencies. The report, for instance, urges the government to recognize the signals it sends by “approv[ing] airport expansions, or financially support[ing] the airline industry with little demands for decarbonisation in return.” The government, though, has maintained that “there are compelling economic arguments in favour of continued growth,” according to another report published by Parliament in September.

The rationale behind pulling the report on behavioral changes off the internet may well emerge from this friction—that is, from the Conservative government’s unwillingness to impose restrictions upon business, its core constituency. It may also be shrinking from appearing to be a force that intervenes in society and the economy in discreet ways. But it shouldn’t, the report’s authors point out. That is its very purpose: “virtually all that governments do is about influencing human behaviour.”

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