Why gas stoves actually matter
Like plastic straws, gas stoves represent an easy way to begin talking about a massive and generally unseen climate problem.
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In last week’s HEATED chat, paid subscribers and I were discussing (what else?) gas stoves, when a reader chimed in to express frustration.
“I yearn for the day when gas stoves are one of the remaining contributors to our climate crisis, but we certainly aren’t there yet,” they said. “This is all an overblown distraction of the week.”
This reader’s annoyance stemmed from the fact that gas stoves aren’t a huge source of climate pollution—at least not in the grand scheme of things. According to the EPA, fossil fuel combustion in buildings is only responsible for about 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And according to the New York Times’ Wirecutter, you don’t really need to ditch your gas stove, because it only accounts for about 3 percent of household gas emissions.
Why, then, should people who care about climate change care about gas stoves? It’s a valid question. Here’s my attempt to answer it.
Gas stoves: The plastic straws of building emissions
There are a bunch of points I’d like to make in this letter—particularly about the accuracy of the EPA’s estimates, and the relative importance of tackling methane emissions (aka, the type that come from gas stoves) compared to other sources.
But first I want to talk about plastic straws.
In 2018, anti-plastic straw content was exploding—and it wasn’t just anti-environment conservatives who were mad about it. People who genuinely cared about plastic waste were annoyed too, because straws are not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things.
So why were activists so focused on them? I remember posing that question to Jackie Nuñez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, while working on an article for the New Republic. First, she said that “even though [straws are] a small percentage of what’s in the ocean, they’re still in the ocean doing harm.” Fair enough. But then, she added (emphasis mine):
I picked straws as my focus because it’s really a simple, tangible thing—but also the symbol of our bigger problem, this disposable culture. What’s most important is that now, everyone is talking about plastic. And the straw is the key that opens the room.
Other anti-straw activists at the time agreed: While emphasizing the harms of the product was important, the plastic straw conversation was never supposed to be entirely about straws. It was supposed to raise awareness about the quiet prevalence of non-recyclable, single-use plastics in our lives, and the harms those plastics cause people and the planet. The plastic straw was merely the gateway.
This is how I think of the gas stove conversation. While emphasizing the harms of the product is important, that shouldn’t be the only focus. The main importance of the gas stove conversation, from a climate perspective, is raising awareness of the quiet prevalence of methane leaks in our lives, and the harm those leaks cause people and the planet. If we’re not doing that, we’re missing the forest for the trees.
The massive problem of methane leaks
When we’re talking about the problem with gas stoves from a climate perspective, what we’re really talking about is the problem with leaking methane.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20 year period. According to the U.N.,
”Methane has accounted for roughly 30 percent of global warming since pre-industrial times and is proliferating faster than at any other time since record keeping began in the 1980s.”
Methane also makes up about 95 percent of consumer-grade natural gas—meaning methane is what’s leaking from your stove every time you turn on the burner before it ignites. It’s also leaking from fittings and connections to your stove, even when it’s off.
Stanford researchers estimate that over one-third of U.S. households have gas stoves. And the methane leaking from stoves inside U.S. homes has the same climate impact as about 500,000 gasoline-powered cars. Like plastic straws, that’s something worth talking about on its own.
But more broadly, it’s important to note that this is only one small example of natural gas infrastructure built specifically for our homes and businesses spewing methane that goes wildly unnoticed by the EPA. When someone says, “The EPA says natural gas/buildings only accounts for a small amount of emissions,” here's a few things they're omitting:
Gas pipelines within cities are leaking nearly five times as much methane as EPA estimates. (Weller 2020)
Customer gas meters are leaking at a rate 6 times higher than the EPA estimates. (Moore 2019)
EPA estimates don’t include gas leakage that occurs within buildings, from pipes or appliances or furnaces or stoves. (Saint-Vincent and Pekney 2019)
If people just electrified their buildings instead of relying on gas for heat and cooking, most of this leakage would disappear. That would be incredible for the climate—not only because methane is a far more powerful climate pollutant than carbon dioxide, but because it only takes about a decade for methane to dissipate from the atmosphere, while CO2 takes hundreds to thousands of years.
“I’ve been covering methane emissions for years, and both scientists and policymakers tell me cutting methane emissions is one of the most effective ways to quickly combat climate change because of the gas’s potency and short atmospheric life,” Inside Climate’s Phil McKenna told his publication last year.
So why in the world are we not doing that, particularly when we’re running up against such tight deadlines to limit warming to non-catastrophic levels?
One big, stupid reason: customer loyalty to gas stoves.
Pushing back on fossil fuel brand loyalty
Another reason the gas stove conversation is important is because, as Bloomberg’s Justin Fox wrote in 2021, “Gas cooking [seems] likely to be the biggest obstacle to the effort to electrify the American home in the name of slowing climate change.”
Why’s that? Mainly because people (myself included) like cooking with gas! It’s one of the few energy uses that inspires brand loyalty to the fuel consumed. A 2019 survey by E Source, a utility-consulting firm spun off from the decarbonization-focused Rocky Mountain Institute, found that only 21% of those with gas cooking equipment would consider replacing it with electric.
Americans appear to be much less attached to their natural-gas space heaters and water heaters. Because these heaters are responsible for more than 90% of home natural gas use, replacing them with electric heaters and heat pumps really could have a significant impact on global warming. It would also leave little economic rationale for maintaining a vast distribution network to pipe natural gas into homes just for cooking. For gas utilities fretting about the future, gas stoves are thus a wedge issue to galvanize opposition to the electrification of everything else.
The gas industry, as we covered last week, has ensured that loyalty through nearly 100 years of propaganda. The gas stove conversation happening now is a critical step toward undoing that conditioning.
But, importantly, it’s only a first step.
Gas stoves are only the beginning
While it clearly didn’t rid the world of plastic waste, the 2018 anti-plastic straw movement was ”a masterclass in building public support for an environmental initiative,” according to Elizabeth A. Albright, co-chair of the environmental policy program at Duke University.
However, Albright added, “To truly have a powerful environmental impact, that energy [toward plastic straws] must be redirected to push for larger scale changes in addressing other sources of waste.”
I understand our reader’s frustration about the gas stove debacle. Because of the urgency of the climate crisis, focusing on the wrong thing can sometimes feel like it’s just as bad as doing nothing. And it’s true: people do tend to forget the forest for the trees. If we only talk about banning gas stoves, and say or do nothing about all the rest of the methane leaking from our buildings, this will all have been a terrible missed opportunity.
So thanks to that reader for reminding me to zoom out.
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When she’s not snuggling or silently approving papers, she likes putting pine cones in her mouth and rolling in grass.
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I used to think activists should avoid certain topics like stoves/straws/meat that were guaranteed to provoke overblown reactions from the right. Then I quickly realized that they’ll overblow literally anything. Can’t let their reactions dictate the conversation.
According to the EPA, "37% of methane emissions from human activity are the direct result of our livestock and agricultural practices." AOC stated this fact, and her words were distorted to create patronizing headlines about cow farts. As soon as someone mentioned the fact that gas stoves contribute to global warming, the crazies came out, and we saw tweets about prying "cold, dead hands" off their cherished gas stoves.
We used to hear similar comments about seat belts and cigarettes and hair spray and - my personal favorite - R22 refrigerant. And yet public perception about each one of these changed virtually overnight, and it did so because responsible people in positions of authority made decisions based on science that improved things for all of us. The "Ozone Debate" is a classic case of science overpowering stupidity: in spite of comments about how ridiculous it was to think that hair spray was going to bring about the end of humankind, science prevailed. International agreements limited the production of ozone-depleting chemicals, and the problem was corrected.
The reason we dodged the ozone bullet was that the R-22 lobby wasn't quite as powerful as today's fossil fuel lobby - plus, there was no Tweeting back then. Or Fox "News." The "How stupid is this?" voices were somewhat subdued. Today, fossil fuel bribery specialists (aka, "lobbyists") are sitting in on every conference about climate change, so the ability of science to overtake the noise is that much more difficult. Let's hope the science eventually wins.