We humans

Charcoal may be great for barbecues — but it’s bad for the planet

Jul 1, 2021 /

In much of the world, barbecuing is practically synonymous with summer. And while some people grill with gas and electricity, many barbecue enthusiasts will tell you that grilling with charcoal gives their food with a particularly smoky flavor that just can’t be matched by the alternatives. 

Charcoal is one of the oldest fuel sources in existence. Our ancient ancestors likely discovered the benefits of cooking with charcoal soon after they learned how to control fire more than a million years ago — and millions of people around the world still use it on a daily basis to cook their food. 

The North American charcoal market alone is set to grow to $466.6 million USD by 2030. But those smoked meats and glowing embers come with significant ecological and human costs at every stage. From creation to cookout, here’s a look at the hidden costs of charcoal.  

The demand for charcoal is causing deforestation, which releases large amounts of greenhouse gases 

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s charcoal is produced in Africa, followed by the Americas (mainly in South America) and Asia. Traditional charcoal is produced by cutting down trees and burning them in kilns. These kilns range from specialized structures that can be used again and again — like the ones in Death Valley National Park’s Wildrose Canyon — or simple earthen mounds that are used only once. 

Charcoal is mostly used for recreational barbecuing in places like North America and Europe, but it’s the primary cooking fuel in most African nations, explains Catherine Nabukalu, a project coordinator at District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility who studies the global charcoal supply chain. In fact, the United Nations estimates that more than 950 million people rely on wood and charcoal for cooking in Sub-Saharan Africa alone; that number will rise to 1.67 billion by 2050. 

It even remains the fuel of choice in large cities with reliable utilities, Nabukalu says. That’s because charcoal stoves cost much less than electric or gas stoves, and it’s easier to budget for picking up a bag of charcoal at a market rather than dealing with fluctuations in the price of electricity or gas. 

But the use of charcoal is decimating ecosystems across the African continent. “Charcoal producers are removing 80 percent of the biomass in the forests,” says Fernando Sedano, a geographer at the University of Maryland who studies energy demand and forest degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Where before you had big trees and small trees along with shrubs and grass, you now only have smaller trees and some shrubs and grassland. The big and medium-sized trees are all gone.” In turn, wildlife that rely on those bigger trees — including endangered species like lemurs and mountain gorillas — are disappearing, possibly for good. 

In addition to accelerating biodiversity loss, the charcoal industry releases planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to a 2017 study, forest degradation alone is responsible for 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Then, burning wood in kilns to create charcoal and transporting it overseas on ships generates significant amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane. Closer to home, the average grill produces about 11 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour, according to The New York Times. That means a typical two-hour charcoal grilling session emits as much carbon dioxide as driving a car for about 26 miles. 

To put that into perspective, if each of the 38.85 million owners of charcoal grills in the US decided to fire up their barbecue for just one hour on the Fourth of July, they would collectively release more than 427 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air on that day alone. That’s equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 42,211 gasoline-powered cars.

Charcoal production doesn’t just harm the environment — it also harms workers  

Ironically, this intense level of forest degradation is hurting charcoal producers themselves, Sedano says. Where before charcoal producers would only have to go about 50 kilometers outside of a city to find large enough trees, they now have to travel upwards of 300 kilometers away to find the trees they need — and that number goes up every year, leading to ever-increasing transport costs and emissions. “It’s just not sustainable,” Sedano adds.

Moving away from cities (and further into forests) also creates worse working conditions for the people who work on the ground to turn trees into charcoal. Migrant workers are often hired to produce charcoal, and they are forced to live and work practically year-round in the forests where they chop down and burn trees. “There’s little food or water in the forest,” Sedano explains, so workers have to rely on their employers to provide supplies, which end up coming out of their already-meager wages. “Charcoal production becomes like the last resort for people,” Sedano says. 

And then there are the health impacts on both the charcoal producers and consumers. Charcoal is essentially pure carbon, and burning charcoal releases high levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and pollutants like soot, which can travel deep into the lungs, especially in poorly-ventilated kitchens. These emissions can prove incredibly harmful. According to the United Nations, nearly four million people around the world die prematurely every year due to cooking with open fires and solid fuels like charcoal. Research also shows that charcoal production workers, who often sleep and eat next to their kilns, are at higher risk of respiratory health problems, including cough, chronic bronchitis and wheezing. 

But the problem isn’t just limited to the African continent. In her research into global charcoal markets, Nabukalu discovered that the 10 largest importers of charcoal are all energy-rich countries that import charcoal for recreational use, such as Germany and the United States. In those countries, where charcoal is mostly used for outdoor grilling, the health risks are reduced — but the environmental harm remains very real. 

You can choose greener charcoal alternatives 

This doesn’t mean the only way to have an environmentally friendly summer is to stop barbecuing altogether. Some sources of charcoal are better for local ecologies than others: Kingsford, which controls 80 percent of the American charcoal market, produces its charcoal briquettes out of wood waste from local sawmills. While briquettes still emit carbon dioxide and require chemicals and energy-intensive processes to produce, they are at least avoiding the destruction of more trees for the sake of a barbecue. “After all,” Nabukalu points out, “wood waste has to be disposed of somehow.” 

Another option for a greener barbecue is to opt for briquettes made out of coconut shells, which produce less smoke and eliminate the need for wood or wood waste. You can even switch fuel sources altogether. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates that gas grills emit about half as much carbon dioxide per hour as charcoal grills. Thinking of switching to electric? Unless it’s being powered by a renewable energy source like wind or solar, electric grills actually have a worse overall footprint than gas because electricity often comes from coal.

And if you’re a charcoal purist who’s less picky about their diet, you could try swapping out a few meaty go-tos for something plant-based. According to Mother Jones, grilling 30 fewer cheeseburgers a year on a charcoal grill would cut out roughly the same amount of emissions as switching to a gas grill. 

As with anything in this world hurtling towards climate disaster, the solution will always require some sort of compromise. But with the right combination of factors, an environmentally friendlier barbecue is entirely possible — smoky flavor and all. 

Not ready to go vegan? Graham Hill has a powerful, pragmatic suggestion: Be a weekday vegetarian.