A look at the numbers: should you use gas or charcoal? And how does that choice compare to what you actually put on the grill? I promise you will still be allowed to have a barbecue when you finish reading this.
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Main learning: What you put on the grill is more important than the fuel
Goal: Switch out beef for other meat or vegetables
Impact: Very high 🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎 (as part of replacing beef)
At the time of posting this, I’m on vacation in Switzerland, where I enjoy my yearly summer ritual: roasting a sausage on a campfire. This particular kind of sausage has so much nostalgia and I enjoy it so much, that it’s one of the few times in the year I buy meat. But what causes more CO2, the sausage or the burnt wood?
Burning African rainforest on European BBQs
The most common fuel for a barbecue is charcoal. And I’ve always wondered what charcoal actually is. How can it release so much energy if it’s already burnt?
Charcoal is made is by burning wood in an air-tight space with little oxygen. It’s a bit like reducing a sauce to concentrate the flavour. In this case the wood becomes more concentrated which means it takes around 10 kg of wood to produce 1 kg charcoal.
In Europe this process happens in special facilities, but that’s not the case everywhere. About one fifth of European charcoal comes from African rainforest, where the process is much less efficient, which means the CO2 impact is up to 14 times higher. The production of charcoal in Nigeria contributes to the destruction of rainforest and is also in competition with firewood for the local population.
The WWF analysed several charcoal brands and recommends to only buy the more expensive and local charcoal, ideally with the FSC mark for sustainable forestry.
What’s more sustainable: gas or charcoal?
When you burn charcoal, all that carbon that was stored in wood is released back into the atmosphere. In theory, this is ‘renewable’ because it came from trees that grow again and take up the CO2.
Propane gas on the other hand comes from fossil fuel, which also came from plants but took hundreds of millions of years to form. So clearly, burning gas is not renewable. But the question whether it’s renewable is a bit pointless because right now we need to do everything we can to reduce CO2 emissions. And the trees we would cut down, don’t grow back so quickly to recapture the CO2.
There’s a study where they analysed the emissions of the two types of barbecue styles. They found the footprint of gas is three times lower.
So should you choose gas? Before we will answer that question we should also look at what goes on the grill.
Meat vs. charcoal
What you see below is the footprint of using 1,5 kg charcoal, which should be enough to grill one or two of these food options.
The original research used 750 grams of charcoal for grilling 1,5 kg of food. We doubled the amount of charcoal because we thought it was a bit conservative (a small bag of charcoal is often 3 kg).
Beef has a much larger footprint and even the bell peppers with goat cheese still have a slightly higher footprint than the charcoal. This analysis once again shows that it’s more important what you eat than how it’s prepared. And it shows the huge impact of beef.
If we compare barbecuing to meat consumption we also have to look at how often we light up the grill. In the BBQ study the researchers assumed that one grill would last around 150 sessions. That’s around two or three per year for an adult life.
The total footprint of burnt charcoal for 150 barbecue sessions is around 1 tonne CO2. It’s still less than one flight from Amsterdam to New York and if you eat vegetarian for just one year you would have already saved that amount. We should probably first focus on those things before wondering about the impact of a barbecue.
So coming back to the question of whether to use charcoal or gas, I’m going to keep using charcoal. I could save more CO2 with gas but I like the feeling and experience of charcoal and the flavour it gives. The extra emissions of charcoal are easily saved by being more careful of what I put on the grill.
How to have a vegetarian barbecue
A BBQ without meat doesn’t have to be boring, but at first, I didn’t know how to do it. I often prepared veggie skewers but that was always a lot of work. Then I was invited by John and Prisca, two friends from summer camp, to learn more. I got loads of hints. We enjoyed some delicious veggies while sharing travel stories from the good old times when we stepped into an airplane without thinking about it.
A barbecue burns wood (or fossil fuel) and is not really sustainable in the era of climate change, but it’s a luxury we can allow ourselves once in a while. Much more important is what we put on the BBQ.
Like always, the most sustainable options are vegetables but we can also cut emissions in half with smarter meat choices such as chicken or pork instead of beef.
And even though the gas or charcoal makes up a smaller part of the emissions of the whole BBQing experience, it’s important to buy higher quality and local charcoal whenever you choose charcoal. It lasts longer, causes fewer emissions and doesn’t destroy African rainforests.
Tips for a sustainable barbecue
- Grill vegetables or low-impact meat like chicken
- Buy European or local charcoal with FSC mark, if you prefer charcoal
- Put the lid on and when you’re done throw some water over the charcoal so it doesn’t all burn up