I love grilling with charcoal vs. propane. The smoke, the smell, the taste – there’s nothing better than cooking with lumps of pure carbon.

But as someone who thinks that my relationship with the planet is somehow wrapped up in my relationship with God, I’ve wrestled with the possibility that burning charcoal vs. propane might be a spiritually inconvenient habit.

It’s tempting to think that our little charcoal grill doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. The earth is a big place and my family’s choice of grilling fuel is a little thing. But the spiritual life isn’t about grand gestures. It’s about the hundreds of little things we do every day.

And that means our decision to stick with charcoal or make the switch to propane matters. So we did some research …

The problem with charcoal vs. propane is CO2.

It turns out that the carbon impact of charcoal dwarfs propane.

According to the experts, the carbon footprint of charcoal is about 3 times greater than the carbon footprint of propane and charcoal emits about twice as much carbon dioxide as propane.

Every time I fill up my Weber kettle grill with charcoal instead of turning a knob and grilling with propane, I’m doubling the amount of CO2 I pump into the atmosphere.

Ouch.

But wait, charcoal may still be more eco-friendly than propane.

In the battle of charcoal vs. propane, it looked like our charcoal grilling days were numbered. But CO2 emissions don’t tell the whole story. To really understand the environmental consequences of charcoal grilling, you have to take a look at the total carbon cycle.

When it comes to the total carbon cycle, charcoal (a bio fuel) beats propane (a fossil fuel) because it can be replaced.

Although charcoal has a larger carbon footprint, propane (and other petroleum-based fuels) are non-renewable resources. When they’re removed from the environment, they’re gone forever.

Charcoal, on the other hand, is made from wood–a renewable energy source. In a relatively short period of time, new trees grow and absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that makes charcoal a more carbon-neutral cooking fuel.

In the end, it really isn’t about charcoal vs. propane at all.

Now here’s the kicker: the fuel you cook with isn’t nearly as important as the food you cook.

The average charcoal grill emits about 11 lbs. of CO2 per hour. Sounds like a lot, right? Consider the CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) that is generated by the production and processing of just 4 pounds of the foods that typically land on our backyard grills:

  • Beef (steaks or hamburgers): 54 lbs. CO2e
  • Pork Loin: 24 lbs. CO2e
  • Farm-raised Salmon Steaks: 24 lbs. CO2e
  • Turkey Sausage: 22 lbs. CO2e
  • Chicken: 14 lbs. CO2e
  • Grilled Vegetables: < 5 lbs. CO2e

Notice a theme? The healthier the food, the lower the CO2e emissions. What’s good for the planet is good for you.

If love to grill steaks and sausages on a massive propane-fueled grill, God bless. Have fun. Invite me over for dinner sometime.

But being a good steward of creation means asking questions and understanding the effect that life’s seemingly small decisions have on the world around you.

And for me, that means I’ll keep my charcoal … and maybe grill a few more veggies this summer.