Charcoal vs Propane – Which is Better for the Planet?

One thing I love about summer is cooking on the grill outside.  Of course that raises the age old question: Charcoal vs. Propane?  Which one is better for the planet?  Which is better for our health?  My answer may surprise you.

From a greenhouse gas (GHG) perspective, if you really want to make a difference it doesn’t matter what you cook with, it is all about what you cook.  Switching from hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks to tasty grilled vegetables, fish and chicken will significantly reduce your carbon footprint and is healthier for you.

Hot Dogs

Hot dogs over a wood fire while camping

The CO2e emissions from firing up the charcoal grill to cook a meal are about 10 lbs CO2e.  Propane and natural gas emissions for the same grilling session are about half of that.  If you cooked 8 quarter pound hamburgers or 4-8oz steaks, the emissions from the meat is about 54 lbs CO2e (source EWG) or more than 5 times the emissions from your cooking fuel.  By switching to chicken you cut your footprint by 3/4th.  Going vegetarian would cut it so far that it would be even less than the emissions from the burning the fuel to cook it.

You still want to know which is better for the planet, charcoal or propane?  It turns out the answer depends. Huffington Post’s Charcoal Vs. Gas Grill: Which is Better for the Environment? explores the issues and explains that charcoal is dirtier but can come from renewable resource while propane emits less green house gasses, it’s a fossil fuel.  Earth 911’s Greener Grilling: Gas or Charcoal goes into more life cycle analysis of these two popular grill alternatives.

We usually use charcoal for large parties and propane for a small family meal. When you do grill with charcoal, be sure to use natural lump charcoal and a chimney starter rather than the chemical laden briquettes and/or lighter fluid.  Not only can the chemicals add an unpleasant taste to your meal, they are also bad for your health.  My trick with the chimney fire starter, which I learned from Alton Brown, is to use one piece of newsprint with a few squirts or sprays of cooking oil on it to get the chimney going.  When grilling with propane, be sure to turn off your grill when you are done or taking an extended break from grilling.

colorful grilled hamburger with beet salad

Delicious meal featuring a large organic beet & quinoa salad and a small cheeseburger.

So the next time you are going to grill, consider picking some greener items for putting on the grill than the traditional burgers and dogs.  The planet and your health will thank you.

Happy Green Grilling!

For more on throwing green parties, check out our  post on Greening Parties.

For more on the carbon footprint of the foods we eat, check out the Environmental Working Groups Meat Eaters Guide.  For every pound of food consumed, the following are emitted:

chart showing food production CO2 emissions by EWG

Food production CO2 Emissions from EWG

  • Beef – 27 lbs CO2
  • Chicken – 6.9 lbs CO2
  • Tofu – 2.0 lbs CO2

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  1. Thanks for sharing! I’m going to bookmark this so my hubby can read it, too. 🙂

  2. Thanks for mentioning the vegetarian: nice curve ball! and puts the whole thing into perspective. I still prefer charcoal, but use only a hibachi (8″x16″) to do the lot for our family of 4, then put on some eggplants for next day’s baba ganouch. Gets the most out of that charcoal batch: one load of chimney starter covers two meals.

  3. Great article! We use propane just because of the convenience factor. Glad to know it doesn’t really matter what I use. 😉

  4. We don’t do a lot of grilling, but it’s always good to learn more about the topic and its impact on the environment.

  5. Sadly, I chucked my smoker before reading this because I couldn’t decide if charcoal was better than propane (both for the body and the environment).

  6. Brilliant! I may add these interesting facts to my website, thanks!

  7. Stefani Browne says

    well tbh i like really hate like meat because like i’m like a vegan so like i don’t eat like meat and like stuff.

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