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Research: fact check: gas grill better for the climate than charcoal?

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Charcoal or gas grill: which one is more harmful to the climate? This fact check shows that and also reveals that the grilled food is often the real polluter.

The Germans like to stand at the grill and due to the pandemic even more often. In a study by the market research consultancy mafowerk, 28 percent of those surveyed stated that the corona virus caused their grate to be heated up more often than before. And underneath, gas is increasingly providing the necessary heat. Charcoal remains number one – although it is said to be more harmful to nature. Is that correct? A fact check.

Claim: Grilling with gas is more climate-friendly than with charcoal and releases less harmful carbon dioxide (CO2).

Rating: That’s true, but the selection of the food to be grilled is more important for the climate balance.

Facts: For their barbecue experience, Germans still rely primarily on charcoal heat – even if the trend is declining. In 2011, 74 percent of those surveyed by the opinion research institute Forsa still used this method, ten years later the figure is only 58 percent. This is the result of the current grill study by the poultry meat company Wiesenhof.

Gas grills are therefore becoming more and more popular: in 2011 it was still one in ten people, now 29 percent of those surveyed grill in this way.

While the experience of a charcoal grill is the focus for many grill experts, i.e. from the procedure of lighting to smelling and even tasting the embers, the gas grill has other advantages: Because there is no fireplace to dispose of, it makes less mess. The inflowing gas, which is ignited, heats it up much faster. In addition, it is more climate-friendly compared to the charcoal grill.

Eric Johnson came to this conclusion in a study. The head of the Swiss environmental consultancy “Atlantic Consulting” compared the CO2 balance of two grill systems – coal and liquid gas – in 2009. He compared both systems by running them 150 times for an hour, theoretically cooking two kilograms of food on them.

Conclusion: When using the charcoal grill, 6.7 kilograms of CO2 are released. A modern car that only consumes around six liters of petrol would cover a distance of almost 50 kilometres. According to the study, only 2.3 kilograms of CO2 are released when using the gas grill. Here the car would only go about 16 kilometers. All in all, the result means that the CO2 emissions when grilling with charcoal are almost three times as high as with gas.

One reason for the difference is the production of the fuel, which the study indicates for charcoal with around 3 kilograms of CO2 per use. With the gas grill, on the other hand, it is only 0.12 kilograms of CO2.

However, what is grilled is more important for the environment than the type of grill (charcoal, gas or electric). The Federal Environment Agency refers to a life cycle assessment study by TÜV Rheinland from 2011, according to which the vast majority of climate-relevant emissions are caused by the food on the grill.

Animal products pollute the environment over the entire life cycle far more than corn, for example. According to TÜV Rheinland, the biggest climate sinners on the grill are beef with emissions of around 2.9 kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per 200 grams of grilled meat and cheese with around 1.9 kg of CO2e per 200 grams. The unit of measurement serves to standardize the Climate impact, one kg of CO2e corresponds to the impact of one kg of CO2. Pork and sausage follow.

Best for the climate: grilled corn with 50 grams of CO2e, which was the only plant-based food in the study. The type of grill hardly played a role in the results.

And what do the Germans put on the grill? According to the Wiesenhof grill study, pork remains the most popular despite a decline (2021: 63 percent, 2009: 69 percent), followed by poultry (2021: 58, 2009: 54). Vegetables are showing particularly strong growth (2021: 50, 2009: 29). It was just ahead of cattle in 2021, which also increased (2021: 49, 2009: 33). Grilled cheese came to 37 percent in 2021, potatoes to 26, fish to 24, lamb to 16. Vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes together accounted for 13 percent.

Behind Wiesenhof is the parent company PHW, which is considered the largest German poultry breeder and processor. For several years, Wiesenhof has increasingly relied on meat substitutes.