Like many foodies, Jodie Johnson likes to cook with cast-iron cookware on her gas stove — the open flame gets her pans from a little bit warm to piping hot in a matter of seconds.

However, her stove’s environmental impact hasn’t sat well with her for years. Johnson, who lives in a circa-1920s home in Vancouver, has slowly been swapping her polluting appliances for cleaner alternatives — she now has an electric fireplace rather than gas, which keeps her warm, along with electric floor heating. She plans to swap her 1990s Honda CR-V out for a hybrid once it dies, too.

“You sort of have to balance the new with the old and try to be aware of the choices you make and how important they are,” she said.

Jodie Johnson melting butter on her gas stove in Vancouver. Photo by Jesse Winter

In Johnson’s home city, 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, mostly from burning natural gas for cooking, heating and hot water. The majority of its climate impact comes from boilers and water heaters, but gas stoves also play a role.

Made primarily of methane — a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon for the first 20 years it exists in the atmosphere — natural gas has been the fossil fuel of choice in many North American homes since the 1940s. But recently, there has been a shift as cities make efforts to lower their carbon footprints and transition off natural gas.

New York City is leading the way in America by eliminating gas hookups and use in new development citywide, following the lead of other U.S cities such as Berkeley and Seattle. By the end of 2023 in NYC, buildings shorter than seven storeys have to get off gas — larger buildings will have until 2027. With a population of over eight million, the commitment is a milestone in the energy transition.

In New York, the ban followed the passing of Local Law 97, which requires large buildings to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050. Pete Sikora, climate campaigns director for New York Communities for Change, said the campaign to get the gas ban passed was “shockingly short.”

The group, which leads equity and environmental campaigns across the city, started the push last spring, building off the new law, which took years to get passed. Looking to cities in California, Sikora said the group worked with other organizations to push New York City council to pass the ban.

He’s currently chronicling that process in a report he hopes will serve as a blueprint for other North American municipalities to get off gas. The strongest opponents to the ban were realtors and the gas industry, Sikora said. Some restaurants pushed back as well, worried their menus and wallets would take a hit if they had to swap out their gas stoves. They were granted an exemption on the bill, said Sikora, although he hopes future bills and legislation can help them get off fossil fuels, too.

Natural gas has been the choice in many North American homes since the 1940s. But as cities try to lower their carbon footprints, some are fighting to get rid of the fossil fuel in homes and businesses. #SustainableCities
A protest in New York City, asking councillors to adopt legislation to get the city off natural gas. Photo by Pete Sikora

Although NYC isn’t set to have a renewable energy grid until 2040, Sikora said the short-term impacts of getting off natural gas in buildings are huge. He also points to the state’s Democratic governor being the first in the country to support a state-wide natural gas ban for new buildings by 2027 as a step in the right direction.

In Canada, where homes and buildings make up 13 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, similar bans are taking shape. As of Jan. 1, Vancouver requires heating equipment to be zero-emission in new low-rise residential buildings. Oil heating in Quebec's new buildings is also no longer permitted as of Jan. 1, and Montreal has gone even further, promising all new buildings will be emission-free by 2030. Toronto passed landmark legislation in December to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. And while there’s no firm end date for natural gas, the city’s report outlining how to get there promises to “accelerate a rapid and significant reduction in natural gas use.”

However, cities only have so much power. In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, the City of Toronto said it “does not have the authority to deny permits based on choice of fuel source.” The Ontario Building Code contains options for meeting buildings’ energy efficiency requirements and does not prescribe a specific fuel choice.

Gas bans in Ontario run counter to the direction of the provincial government, which is currently expanding natural gas infrastructure. In June, the province announced Phase 2 of its Natural Gas Expansion Program, which will put over “$234 million to support approximately 8,750 connections in 43 rural, northern and Indigenous communities.”

And in B.C., when John Horgan’s NDP government released its CleanBC Roadmap to 2030 in October, environmental groups were quick to point out the document includes plans for more natural gas development. At the same time, the province’s primary provider of natural gas, FortisBC, is doubling down on its proposal to provide “renewable natural gas” to consumers. The “renewable” natural gas in question would capture methane from organic waste, such as landfills, and could also include controversial methods such as blending in hydrogen.

As Seth Klein wrote for Canada’s National Observer on Jan. 26, a recent news release from the company claims: “The use of renewable natural gas eliminates any need for expensive building retrofits to fuel switch.”

“This is an outrageous statement that lays bare the company’s real end-game here — to get around the new climate regulations of cities like Vancouver and forestall households swapping to electric heat pumps for the sake of the climate,” he wrote.

A heat pump being installed on the exterior of a Toronto building. Photo courtesy of The Atmospheric Fund

Provincial limitations aren’t the only reason it can be a struggle to get gas legislation passed, as Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver’s former city manager, can attest.

In 2016, the city proposed legislation that would see new construction built to achieve net-zero building emissions (a.k.a., no natural gas) by 2030. It experienced intense pushback from FortisBC, restaurants and the fireplace industry, even though the proposal recommended existing homes be given some leeway and be allowed to use natural gas until 2050.

Johnston said the city had to find a middle ground, which meant working with FortisBC to implement a more phased transition.

The City of Vancouver said it is still on track to have net-zero emissions for new buildings by 2030, but that its new gas legislation — drafted after consulting with FortisBC — includes renewable natural gas.

“... As of 2022, regulation still allows natural gas for cooking and some decorative gas fireplaces. Currently, in highrise buildings and detached houses, high-efficiency gas equipment can still be used for domestic hot water and heating,” the city said in a statement to Canada’s National Observer.

“... For existing buildings, Vancouver is working towards ensuring that all heating and hot water systems are replaced with either high-efficiency gas systems (in some cases) or renewable energy (zero-emissions systems), but only at the end of their useful life, at time of replacement.”

However, Liz McDowell, who leads Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities work in Canada, says a complete ban on gas tie-ins into new homes is the only way to go. Stand.earth has been advocating for bans on natural gas across North America — its American counterpart was active in the campaign to get NYC off gas.

Liz McDowell helps local governments transition off fossil fuels as part of Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities Campaign. Photo provided by Liz McDowell

The natural gas industry has done a good job at convincing people, especially in the Pacific Northwest, that the fossil fuel is environmentally friendly. And provinces don’t make it easy for municipalities to transition off natural gas, said McDowell.

Municipalities like North Vancouver have used roundabout mechanisms to get past the limitations of their power through the buildings step code, which provides developers with incentives to phase out gas in buildings.

“Because they don't have the power to actually ban it. They don't even have power to set greenhouse gas intensity targets,” McDowell said, adding that Stand.earth has been calling on the provincial government to amend the building code to make it easier for cities to get off gas.

Shifting off natural gas would be an environmental win and improve the health of Canadians, said McDowell. A study out of Stanford in January found up to 1.3 per cent of gas used by stoves in the U.S. could be leaking into the air.

“We're finding out more and more about why natural gas is not safe in our homes, including that kids have a 42 per cent higher chance of having asthma symptoms if there are gas [stoves] in the home, which is really significant,” she said.

“Then you have all kinds of problems with leaks and fires … this is just not safe for us to have in cities. This is technology that we need to move off of.”

The federal government has money available for homeowners who want to move off gas. A homeowners retrofit grant that began in May offers grants of up to $5,000 for as many as 700,000 people to lower emissions in their homes. However, as Canada’s National Observer reported in January, a quarter of available grants have already been applied for, even though the program is supposed to last seven years.

Chris Phillips, president of Greening Homes. Photo courtesy of Chris Phillips

Although higher levels of government may be reluctant to get off gas, Chris Phillips, president of Greening Homes in Toronto, said interest from individuals has been soaring. His company specializes in zero-carbon home renovations.

In the past, Phillips said people opted for retrofits and other energy-saving options rather than swapping out their gas. He said the technology is getting more accessible and people are becoming more aware of the environmental and health benefits that come with the swap.

He admits he understands the reluctance. He longed for a gas stove and was excited to move into a house that had one. Now he’s switching it out for induction. He said the health of his kids and the planet made it an obvious decision.

“It's just the awareness of this has just skyrocketed,” he said, adding: “People are just strongly committed to getting off gas in a way I have never seen before.”

Jodie Johnson likes the fine heat control she gets with her gas stove, but when it reaches the end of its life, she will replace it with a carbon-friendly induction model. Photo by Jesse Winter

Jodie Johnson, who says she’s happy to “sleep cold” by not turning on her home’s heat most nights, is leaning that way, too. She spends a lot of time thinking about the right way to green her life, but throwing out her 20-year-old stove for a new one also doesn’t seem right. However, she’s decided, when it kicks the can, her next one will be induction.

She’s doing a test drive now with a single-burner induction hot plate that she plugs in whenever she’s making a one-pan or one-pot meal. It works pretty well, she admits. She gave it the ultimate test recently when she made a coconut cream cake with passion fruit curd for her daughter’s birthday — she said she was able to cook the curd slowly enough that it came out “perfect, smooth and tasty.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
February 11, 2022, 06:22 am

This story has been changed to reflect the Stanford study applies only to gas stoves.

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Cities must put in place regulations to ban “natural gas” connections in all new housing.

At the same time financial incentives, detailed information and links to local contractors are essential.

We transitioned away from gas in 2020. Learning that in Ontario our gas is mostly obtained by fracking and delivered by pipeline from Canadian and U.S. locations, along with understanding its huge environmental impact at every step was enough to propel me to figure out how to turn it off for good!

Since September 16, 2020 we have been all electric. We have a brilliant air-to-air Heat Pump, electric fireplace, electric water heater and induction stove. Our indoor air is cleaner and our heat pump keeps us more comfortable than our previous gas furnace and air conditioning ever did. And it is not more expensive even though gas is still heavily subsidized.

Readers may want to take in a recent episode of Energy vs. Climate which was about use of gas in the home and paid special attention to the health implications of cooking with gas: https://www.energyvsclimate.com/youre-invited-natural-gas-in-the-home/.

There is not a one size fit all solution. Diverse technologies and fuels will be required for different use cases: outfitting new buildings vs retrofitting existing high-rise buildings. The sooner we can get gas utilities to switch to cleaner fuels, the better.

Environmentalists who talk of “urgent” climate action, should recognize the need to tackle the vast number of existing high rise buildings, which who will not be in position to replace their equipment for a long time due to lack of sufficient electrical infrastructure.

See this City of Vancouver/UBC study for limitations of heat pumps for existing high rise buildings: https://sustain.ubc.ca/sites/default/files/2017-32_Heat%20Pump%20Retrofi...

Both solutions can complement each other: heat pumps and electric appliances for newer buildings; switching to renewable gases for existing buildings.

If fossil gas is replaced with renewable natural gas (which would be released from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and livestock farms anyways) how is that not a good thing? For instance, blending 50% RNG into natural gas pipelines for heating homes means 50% less extraction of fossil gas. Isn’t that better than waiting decades for electrical infrastructure upgrades for high rise buildings?

Eventually, as green hydrogen becomes cheaper, and hydrogen is supplied via the same pipelines, even greater reductions (close to 100%) in emissions can materialize. Is that not a good thing?

The natural gas companies have a nice lock-in situation. If you had to decide, at home-buying time, whether you wanted a few tens of thousands spent for the trench to connect your house to the street main; and had to pay up front your share (say 1/20 for a typical block of 10 houses each side) for the street main trench, almost everybody would go electric, that supply line is already there.

But you don't get that decision. The gas companies get to charge a rate that includes their "inherent" cost of supplying every new neighbourhood with, ah, "Free" gas mains and gas service lines to each new house, so your only cost is turning a valve.

Banning isn't really needed: just choice. If subdivision developers were able to build "gas main free" subdivisions, they'd be thousands of dollars cheaper per house, and have that green halo; they'd take over quickly and naturally.