Barbecuing with sustainable charcoal

Last updated Saturday 10 January 2009

Should you lump it or leave it?

Charcoal is basically all carbon, so can burning it ever be green?

Over 90% of the charcoal we burn on our barbecues comes from non-UK forests, many of which are not replaced when they're cut down. Deforestation has such a significant impact on climate change that barbecuing with non-sustainable charcoal is calculated to emit five times more CO2 than cooking with gas, according to one World Bank study. Luckily there's another way to keep those home fires burning without heating up the climate: British charcoal from sustainable forests.

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Photo: Barbecuing with sustainable charcoal

Saves 24kg to 95kg of CO2 per individual per year

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It's Not Easy Being Green: clay ovens

James Strawbridge and his friend Duncan build a clay oven from scratch

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What difference will it make?

Buying charcoal sourced from sustainable British forests can take a big bite out of your barbecue's emissions.

In sustainable forests, trees are often coppiced rather than cut down, and if they are cut down, they are replaced. Unsustainable charcoal drives deforestation, which currently accounts for a staggering one-fifth of all manmade CO2 emissions.

Making the switch to sustainable charcoal reduces your emissions by exactly as much as replacing disposable nappies with reuseable varieties, shaving 24kg to 95kg of CO2 a year off the average Brit's carbon footprint. Of course, if barbecues are a more regular feature in your back garden then the potential carbon savings from switching are much larger.

According to one study by the University of California on charcoal production, sustainably coppicing wood to make charcoal rather than replacing the forest with crops could cut carbon emissions by 2.5 tonnes per tonne of charcoal. It also found that coppicing a fast-growing species of tree (in this case eucalyptus) could actually remove 136 tonnes of carbon per hectare of managed forest. (The study was conducted in Kenya, but the principles are the same.)

The process of transporting charcoal to Britain also racks up a fair amount of emissions. One sustainable charcoal company estimates that shifting a single bag of charcoal from South Africa to a shop in Britain emits ten times more CO2 - enough to power a 100W incandescent light bulb for over three hours - than delivering a home-grown bag.

But there's more to being green than just reducing your carbon footprint. Buying British charcoal increases Britain's biodiversity because it leads to reforestation. In fact, estimates suggest that the UK could meet 50% of English Nature's biodiversity targets simply by becoming self-sufficient in charcoal.

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What's the debate?

"What about my lungs?"

Propane (gas barbecue fuel) burns very cleanly, unlike charcoal which directly impacts the quality of the surrounding air. Charcoal barbecues release mercury into the atmosphere, according to new research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, 2008. They also emit particulate matter, a danger to human health, but a boon for the climate thanks to its role in the climate-cooling phenomenon known as global dimming.

"I don't care about the climate. What about taste?"

A divisive topic. Some say that there’s no substitute for the smoky flavours imparted by charcoal barbecues. On the other hand, 'non-smokers' might declare that gas barbecues allow you to "taste the meat, not the heat". But even gas barbecues feel the heat from critics, because they provide a 'wet' heat that alters the texture of food.

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What's stopping me?

Pub Fact

  • Mercury emitted by barbecue charcoal combustion often exceeds concentrations permitted by modern health standards, according to 2008 research in the Journal of Hazardous Materials
  • Charcoal briquettes release 105 times more carbon monoxide than gas barbecues, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Globally, 26 million tons of charcoal are burned per year
  • In some developing countries up to 90% of urban households use charcoal as a cooking fuel
  • More efficient charcoal production could cut production emissions by 9kg of CO2 per ton, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh
  • The average family has nine barbecues per year, according to the National BBQ Association
  • It takes approximately eight tonnes of wood to produce one tonne of charcoal
  • Kenya and Brazil combined produce about one quarter of the world's charcoal
  • Britain is Europe's number one barbecue nation, ahead of Germany
  • The UK barbecue market is now worth 3 billion a year, according to the National BBQ Association
  • One cubic metre of wood yields about 53 kg of charcoal
  • 16% of UK households have two barbecues and 10% have three or more

"Isn't sustainable charcoal more expensive?"

Yes - sustainable charcoal is a bit more expensive than regular charcoal, with a kilo costing about 2, compared to 1.20 for a bag of regular charcoal (in a budget supermarket). But because lumpwood charcoal is low-density and catches fire easily, you'll save money when it comes to buying lighter fluids.

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How do I do it?

  • Buy sustainable British lumpwood charcoal rather than charcoal briquettes. Charcoal briquettes are more energy-intensive to produce and require lighter fluids because they are much more dense
  • Replace petroleum-based lighter fluids with waste newspaper and garden waste. (Watch this YouTube video for tips on how to use a chimney-starter)
  • Make your own 'mobile barbecue' rather than buying a disposable one. Load a metal biscuit tin with sustainable charcoal and top it off with metal mesh. Or you can build a permanent barbecue in your garden - just stack some bricks and add a metal grill on top
  • Try crafting a clay oven. Watch the video clip from 'It's Not Easy Being Green' above to find out how.
  • Make your own charcoal. To find out how, read this Allotment Forestry Guide
  • Consider buying a wood-burning barbecue. They're quite niche, but emit far less CO2 than charcoal barbecues because they avoid the energy-intensive process of making charcoal. (Charcoal users consume six times more wood than if they’d just used the wood directly).

Cooking tips:

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stephen, bristol 2009-02-11

I've been using sustainable and locally sourced charcoal for several years now. What I really don't like using is lighter fuel or gel, as it's usually petrochem based. Greenheat do an excellent vegetable based lighter gel than I've used for a couple of years but I've not been able to track it down recently - anybody find where it can be bought in the UK?

As for pre-cooking meat (or anything else for that matter) before putting it on the bbq - get a kettle (ideally Weber as they're built to last) which you can cook all sorts on. I've regularly cooked whole chickens!

Baz, Shrewsbury 2009-02-08

Being a cheapskate, I normally use wood from my woodpile on the barbie but cover it to allow it to carbonise before cooking on it. The wood pile is mainly unwanted scrap timber. To reduce cooking time and to avoid 'Sam and Ella' from the chicken, microwave it first and just brown it on the barbie.
Ain't it funny how we consider it novel and 'cool' to cook on an open fire. Most of the world's population do it by necessity, not by choice or fasion.

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Particulates - sometimes referred to as particulate matter or just particles - are tiny pieces of dust, soot and other materials suspended in the atmosphere. These can be produced naturally, by volcanoes or forest fires for example, but are also caused by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, particularly from diesel engines. Because diesel is a denser fuel than petrol, it needs more oxygen for all its hydrocarbons to react completely, and the unburnt carbon - soot or black smoke - is emitted through the exhaust pipe. navigation


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