Want to Stop Climate Change? Ditch Natural GasPublished June 04, 2022
At this point, I think everyone knows about climate change, and discussions have moved from debating the impacts to what we should be doing to prevent it. Big companies love to ask you to take a look at your carbon footprint, while some activists counter that your individual impact is negligible compared to the emissions of large companies. I want to show you that it’s a bit of both.
What if I told you there is one part of the emissions of our world that only you can change? Unlike making the grid run on renewable energy or making planes that don’t emit tons of CO2, these changes are up to you, because these emissions come from inside your home.
Not sure what I’m referring to? I’m talking about natural gas home heaters, water heaters, stoves, and dryers. Natural gas is made primarily out of methane (Natural Gas Explained | EIA), a fossil fuel that, when burned, emits carbon dioxide and a host of other pollutants:
“The emissions from natural gas-fired boilers and furnaces include nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), trace amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter (PM).” — EPA Report AP 42, Section 1.4
There’s been some research showing that the emissions coming from your gas appliances (particularly your gas stove, since you spend more time around it) emit some of these pollutants in levels high enough to be harmful (CBC News). Methane is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas by itself, estimated to have a greenhouse effect about 27 to 30 times that of carbon dioxide over 100 years (Understanding Global Warming Potentials, EPA). That means that even a little bit of methane leaking out from your stove, the pipes that get natural gas to your home, or anywhere in the production process can have a huge impact on climate change.
Ultimately, all of these emissions from natural gas use mean one very simple thing - even on a grid powered completely by renewable energy, our natural gas appliances emit dangerous greenhouse gases that warm the planet. It’s worth emphasizing this - even if we closed every fossil fuel power plant and moved every gas car to an electric vehicle, our homes would still be collectively pumping colossal amounts of methane and carbon dioxide into the air.
That means that we absolutely cannot get to zero CO2 emissions (and solve the climate crisis) without moving all of our gas appliances to electric ones. There’s a lot of knock-on benefits to this too - your electric appliances don’t create as many harmful pollutants and don’t leak methane, and induction cooktops (which are electrically powered) even bring water to a boil faster and don’t leave cooktops hot (“Induction Cooking - here’s Why You Should Make The Switch” | Reviewed.com).
Putting Your Appliances in Context
Now let me be clear - home natural gas use isn’t the majority of emissions in the US (or worldwide), but it is a significant source of emissions. Let’s do some quick napkin math:
From the EPA we know that there’s 0.0551 metric tons of CO2 emitted per thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of natural gas burned (Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator | EPA).
From the U.S. Energy Information Administration we know that residential natural gas use was 4.65 trillion cubic feet in 2021 (Natural Gas Explained | EIA)
From math class we know one trillion is 1,000,000,000,000 or more simply 1012, while one thousand is 1,000 or 103.
By dividing our previous 0.0551 tons CO2 per thousand cubic feet number by 103, we get that a single cubic foot of natural gas emits 0.0000551 metric tons of CO2.
To get our total CO2 emissions from residential natural gas use, we need to take 4.65 trillion cubic feet and multiply by 0.0000551 metric tons CO2 per cubic foot.
Or written out:
If you punch that into a calculator, you’ll get back 256,215,000 metric tons of CO2. That means that residential natural gas use emitted approximately 256 million metric tons of CO2 in 2021 alone!
For comparison, according to Our World In Data’s US Emissions Page, the US emitted 4.71 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2020 (there’s no data for 2021 yet), making the 256 million tons of CO2 emitted by natural gas US 5.4% of the overall total. And keep in mind this emissions estimate doesn’t account for natural gas leaks, emissions from extracting, producing, and distributing the natural gas, or other factors, so the true emissions are even higher.
So Why Should I Care About 5% Of US Emissions?
That 5.4% figure might leave you wondering - why should you care, and why did I even write an article about this? Aren’t there more important things to worry about? There’s one big reason - electrifying your home appliances (for homeowners) is completely in your control. It might not be cheap, and we should definitely make policies providing rebates and regulating appliances in new construction, but the next time you are purchasing appliances you can choose to make them electric.
Of course it’s worth mentioning that if you own a gas car, that is likely the biggest CO2-emitting machine you own, with the average passenger car emitting 4.6 metric tons of CO2, according to the EPA. Considering that the average American emits around 14.2 tons of CO2 a year, a gas car could make up a whopping 32% of your emissions. That means the next time you are buying a new car, you can have a huge climate impact by making it an electric vehicle!
An obligatory aside - as an avid city biker and transit user, I also have to mention that ditching a car entirely is also an option! There's a lot of benefits if you can make it work, and especially in a dense city, cars (electric or otherwise) are extremely expensive and not an efficient way to move lots of people around compared to trains, buses, or biking.
I think all of this highlights a broader point - climate change is a collective problem, and we need to act collectively to solve it. This includes all the big collective stuff, from voting on climate issues, talking to your friends about climate change, getting big companies to reduce their emissions, and calling your elected officials to support climate legislation. But it also means individual actions, like replacing your fossil-fuel-powered machines with electric ones and letting solar and wind power be built in your local community.
Solving climate change isn’t just about avoiding a terrifying future - it also lets us build a world with cleaner air inside and outside the home, where the power of the sun and the wind can get you to work, heat your home, and cook your food. That sounds like a bright future worth fighting for.
Some Resources to Take You Further
If you’re interested in learning more about electric appliances and electrifying your home, I’d encourage you to check out these resources:
- Electrify Everything in Your Home | Rewiring America
- "Electrify" by Saul Griffith | MIT Press
- "Your Induction Stove Is the First Step Toward Plugging In the Whole House" | The New York Times
- Video: wtf is 'induction cooking' | Adam Ragusea (YouTube)
- Video: It’s Time To Break Up With Our Gas Stoves | Climate Town (YouTube)
- Podcast: Ending Climate Change with Saul Griffith | Factually!
Lastly, I want to plug Decarbonize My State, a project I’ve contributed to that seeks to help visualize emissions information on a state-by-state basis. If you’re curious what the biggest sources of emissions are in your state, I’d encourage you to check it out.
I Have Some Gripes (Counterpoints)
Alright, alright, you’ve read this and you have some issues with my points. Let me just address a few that I’ve seen:
Electric cooking sucks, I love cooking with gas!
Check out wtf is ‘induction cooking’ on YouTube, which walks through induction cooking from a cook’s perspective. The old school electric stoves (the ones with the coils that glow red) often were really annoying and had lots of problems, but induction works totally differently and is much better in a variety of ways. If you can, try it at a friend’s house or buy a small induction cooktop to test with.
Most US electricity comes from natural gas anyway 🙄
Alright, alright, no need for the eye roll! There are a few things to unpack here, but let’s start with the face value argument - that if the electric grid is mostly natural gas, there’s no point switching to electric appliances. This isn’t true for one simple reason - a giant gas power plant is going to be much more efficient at converting natural gas into energy than your home stove, and electric stoves lose less energy than gas stoves.
But also, there are some other factors that challenge this:
The US energy grid already has 20% of power coming from renewables, and 20% from nuclear, meaning (in rough terms) that 40% of electricity in the US is carbon-free today. (Electricity Explained | EIA)
The share of energy coming from renewables is steadily increasing (Electricity Explained | EIA), so the grid is getting cleaner all the time. This means your electric appliances emit less and less over time.
If you buy a gas stove or car now, you’re committing to future emissions - related to points 1 and 2 above, if you buy a gas appliance you’re not just emitting today, you’re locking in emissions for the time until that appliance is replaced, often for a decade more. These so-called committed emissions already jeopardize us hitting our climate goals (Committed emissions from existing energy… | Nature), which is why it’s crucial that we don’t buy new fossil-fuel-powered appliances!