It’s summer, and summer means grilling, and grilling means arguing about grilling. Among the dads (and the dads at heart) crewing their outdoor firepits, fuel is a popular subject of debate. Gas grills, fired from natural-gas lines or propane tanks, offer convenience. But many outdoor-cooking purists insist that wood or charcoal is the only respectable way to sear—and the only way to barbecue. (I’ll save for another time the difference between grilling and barbecuing, but for now let me say that if you think they’re the same, you are wrong.)
Sometimes the disputes are gastronomical, with charcoal champions arguing that it imparts a smokier taste worthy of the fuss and mess. Other times, they are moralistic in tenor, connecting open-flame grilling to a stereotype of masculinity. But grilling can be judged on another register: the ecological one. The fire and smell of a wood or charcoal burn call forth a sense of rugged pastoralism—but could your woodsy fantasy destroy the actual woods?
Let’s start with a small comfort: Grilling has a negligible carbon impact in the United States. Here, home cooking of any kind, indoor or out, is responsible for a small part of overall carbon emissions and fossil-fuel use, no matter whether it’s powered by gas, propane, wood, or electricity. Any reduction in emissions is good, but if reducing your home’s carbon footprint is your goal, you could win bigger victories by examining your automobiles and space heating. Phasing out solid-fuel cookstoves in nations where they are prevalent, including China, India, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, could reduce emissions substantially. In America, however, outdoor home cooking comprises merely a fraction of home cooking’s fraction.
From an emissions perspective, charcoal grills give off more carbon than those fired by gas or propane, because they literally burn carbon. But the kind of charcoal you use matters for the environment too. Lump charcoal is often marketed as a more natural product—just chunks of roasted wood. Compared with self-igniting briquettes, which are doused in chemicals, lump charcoal might indeed help you avoid releasing pollutants into the air.
Lump charcoal also has the potential to become carbon-neutral, because it is made from wood, which could be harvested sustainably from trees that consume the carbon that charcoal grills emit. But such a goal is rarely achieved; some lumber is even harvested expressly for lump charcoal. Briquettes, by contrast, are generally made from wood scraps and waste, which might spare trees from being harvested.
In both cases, the matter comes down to how the charcoal is sourced and manufactured—something the average consumer has little hope of discovering easily. Chances are the charcoal you are buying isn’t super pure. A 2020 study of cooking fuels revealed that many charcoals, whether lump or briquette, contain all manner of additives, including coal, metal, plastic, resin, and biomass. Some of these foreign bodies are invisible; others are obvious—I’ve discovered rocks and concrete in the residue of my own outdoor fires at times.
The more contaminants in the charcoal (and the ignition fuel used to light it), the worse the resulting emissions from burning them—for you and the Earth. To help curb such contamination, Europe is imposing a standard that fuel makers must meet, along with a test for compliance. But no such regulation exists in the United States. Some brands claim fewer contaminants or more sustainable manufacture, so look for those in the meantime.
While propane and natural-gas-fired grills don’t emit nearly as much pollution as charcoal, they do burn fossil fuels—a fundamentally nonrenewable energy source. If you do choose gas for grilling, propane is usually more efficient, burning faster and hotter, and thus using less fuel with every backyard-cooking session—and unlike a natural-gas line, it doesn’t keep you dependent on the fossil-fuel-delivery industry.
Better than propane, natural gas, lump charcoal, or briquettes would be an electric grill mated to a renewable grid, or even a solar grill. Before you scoff at the idea, know that electric grills can sear hot and fast, and their adoption is on the rise. Emily McGee, a spokesperson for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, told me that 10 percent of grill owners whom the organization surveyed in 2020 owned electric rigs. For the rest of this decade, the electric-grill market is expected to continue to grow at an average rate of 7 percent a year.
Even if you don’t electrify it, outdoor grilling in America constitutes such a small share of emissions, it might be fine not to worry about those backyard fires. You’d be better off pressuring Big Charcoal to produce a higher-quality, more sustainable product and electrifying your water heater instead.
Of greater ecological concern than the grill is the stuff that Americans grill on their grills—typically meat, and often red meat. Meat isn’t great for your body or the environment: Cows raised for the production of burgers and steaks contribute 14.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions each year.
As an alternative, I’m obliged to tell you that extra-firm tofu grills well, and so do hearty vegetables such as mushrooms, cauliflower, and eggplant. Grilling plant-based burgers makes them even more authentic red-meat alternatives. For the backyard grillers with concerns about environmental impact, but who still want to chow down on animal flesh, here’s a compromise: Sear less red meat and more poultry or pork. They grill like a charm, and demand an emissions sacrifice far less costly than cows.