The Case Against Cooking with Gas

By Brian Gallagher

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Tick, tick, tick … whoosh! Doesn’t the sound of a stove flame igniting have a certain analog charm? I find myself missing that audible moment of gas catching fire when cooking a meal on an electric stove. But make me an offer to swap my flame-based appliance for an electric one and I’d have no qualms saying goodbye to cooking with gas— research shows the methane and nitrous oxide emissions contribute to climate change and pose respiratory and other health risks.

That sort of offer isn’t hypothetical. Nearly a decade ago Ecuador launched its “Program for efficient cooking,” which encouraged residents, through various incentives, to replace their gas stoves with induction cooktops, an electric stove that heats cookware directly using magnetic fields rather than a hot coil. By 2020 some 750,000 Ecuadorian households, 12 percent of the population, took the government up on the deal. And Ecuador isn’t alone—many places around the globe have instituted similar incentive programs to phase households into electric cooking, including New York State, the Netherlands, Australia, Nepal, and Indonesia. In fact, net-carbon-zero strategies often include programs to swap fossil-fuel burning appliances for electric ones in homes due to presumed emissions and health benefits.

But a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first attempt to quantify the benefits of such a transition. The researchers—led by Carlos Gould, an environmental health scientist at the University of California, San Diego, alongside half a dozen colleagues from Stanford University, Columbia University, and Universidad San Francisco de Quito, in Ecuador—found that when a country’s power grid, like Ecuador’s, is mostly green, replacing gas with electric stoves has real benefits for health and the climate.

The increases in electric stove use were strongly associated with decreases in

Gould and his colleagues estimate that, between 2015 and 2021, Ecuador’s program increased the amount of electricity residents consumed by 5 percent. This offset a commensurate amount of gas people burned on their stoves. “Overall, greenhouse gas emissions go down by about 7 percent,” Gould says. This was partly due to Ecuador’s reliance on hydropower—that renewable source of energy accounts for 80 percent of the country’s grid, the outcome of investing over a billion dollars during the last decade to update the electricity infrastructure to support higher usage. (In the United States about 20 percent of utility power comes from renewable sources. Worldwide, the percentage is around 29 percent.) The researchers were able to track how the program changed electricity consumption by combining data on 130 million monthly household utility bills from two of Ecuador’s largest utilities, monthly data on electricity consumption changes in over 1,000 parishes across the country, and data on the number of people who enrolled in the program.

The increases in electric stove use were also strongly associated with decreases in hospitalization rates, Gould says. Hospitalizations for respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a group of diseases that block airflow and cause other breathing-related problems, were particularly affected, falling by 2.2 percent from 2015 to 2021. “That’s surprisingly large,” Gould says. But it tracks with what he found in a separate randomized experiment in Ecuador, which showed that personal exposure to harmful gas like NO goes down by 50 percent when a household uses an induction versus a gas stove. “That’s huge,” Gould says.

A caveat to these promising results is that they are based on just a single country and may not replicate in other places. “The challenge is finding places where you can generate credible evidence,” Gould says. He and his colleagues are waiting for cities and countries to transition people from gas to induction and hoping governments design smart policies that allow randomized experiments to test whether climate and health benefits arise.

Still, the researchers think the positive effects of Ecuador’s program may represent a conservative estimate. Gas remains heavily subsidized in Ecuador (it’s healthier than cooking with firewood), so many residents rely on it. “The basic case of Ecuador tells us that when the grid is clean, and you can accommodate a large transition to electric cooking,” Gould says, “we think there will be benefits for climate and health.”

Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.

This article was previously published in Nautilus.

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