Fact/Fiction: Are barbecues as bad for the planet as 100-mile car trips?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we ask if cooking the bangers and burgers on the grill is having the same environmental impact as driving long journeys

How it was told

We can’t get enough of barbecues. A mere crack of sunlight peeking through the clouds is enough for us to fire up the grill, even if the Great British Summer has other ideas and the burgers and bangers end up getting cooked on the hob once the inevitable rain arrives.

And the outlook for barbecues wasn’t sunny in the news last week either after the publication of a study that set out to measure their environmental impact.

The research, carried out by scientists from the N8 AgriFood programme, which brings together eight universities from the north of England, was reported in different ways by different publications.

Take The Sun’s report, for example, which went for: “OH BURGER Barbecues create almost as much air pollution as 100-mile car trips, scientists claim.”

As for The Daily Telegraph, it opted for: “Family barbecue as harmful to planet as 90-mile car journey, unless you cut out the red meat” while Mail Online shared the 90-mile assessment with: “Just ONE barbecue causes as much pollution as a 90-mile car journey, scientists reveal.”

As for the i, it went for 80 miles and the well-known measurement of party balloons in: “Why having a bbq is worse for the environment than driving and releases enough carbon dioxide to ‘fill 60 party balloons’.”

Confused? So were we.

Is your barbecue really that bad for the environment?

Facts.Checked

Clearly someone is wrong – a 20-mile discrepancy is a sizeable margin – and it appears that 80 miles is the correct figure.

The story was put out by both Manchester University and N8 AgriFood ahead of the unveiling of the Take a Bite out of Climate Change exhibit, which allowed visitors to assess greenhouse gases at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

According to the press release, the definition of a typical barbecue for four people includes a quarter of a 500g bag of charcoal, two bread rolls, two tablespoons of butter, two 200g burgers, two slices of cheese, one medium tomato (in season), two tablespoons of tomato ketchup, a handful of strawberries and two tablespoons of cream.

This equates to 5.8kgCO2e of greenhouse gases per person. The dent in the environment can be reduced by swapping out beef burgers for chicken breasts that bring down the output to 3.2kgCO2e of greenhouse gases. Going vegan – using veggie sausages, half an onion and vegetable spread instead – reduces levels to 2kgCO2e instead. As for the balloons, researchers used them to give context to the amount of greenhouse gases, reporting that a 100g beef burger releases enough to fill more than 60 balloons, not for the full barbecue like The i insinuates.

However, The i did correctly report that a typical barbecue is equivalent to an 80-mile car trip when it comes to air pollution.

Lead scientist Professor Sarah Bridle from the University of Manchester said: “By making a few small changes to our diets, such as swapping beef for chicken, a fizzy drink for tap water, a cheese sandwich for a peanut butter sandwich, or a fry-up breakfast for porridge, we
can make a significant impact.”

The idea of axing red meat to save the planet is not new – Cambridge professor Sir David King warned that we need to cut down in May, citing the carbon-boosting impact of the travel and space required to serve it up.

While the numbers in this story may be questionable, the overriding message remains the same – cooking red meat on barbecues is bad for the environment and simple switches can make a difference.

Image: Miles Cole