Climate Activists Are Wrong About Which Energy Source Reduces Air Pollution

By Steve Goreham

Originally published in the Washington Examiner.

Today’s media are filled with concerns about air pollution. But few people know which energy source has produced the greatest modern reduction in air pollution. The answer isn’t wind or solar energy.

During the 1950s, my grandfather had a coal furnace in his basement, like many homes in Chicago. Five days after a winter snowfall, the snow was covered with a visible black film of dust from coal furnaces. Our younger generation does not know the original reason for “spring cleaning.” Every spring, homeowners would wash their inside walls to remove coal dust.

It was the rising use of gas fuel, primarily natural gas along with propane, that produced the greatest reduction in air pollution in the United States and across the world. Gas furnaces and stoves have replaced wood in businesses and homes in developed nations. And natural gas power plants have replaced coal-fired plants to generate electricity, with gas becoming the leading fuel for industry.

Natural gas and propane are clean-burning fuels that emit no harmful pollutants when burned. When gas heating is substituted for coal or wood heating, indoor particulate pollution is reduced by 1,000 times.

Today, 70% of US homes use natural gas or propane, a percentage that has been rising for decades. Gas fuels have also become the leading heating and cooking source in Europe, providing 83% of heat energy in the Netherlands and 78% in the United Kingdom. But there are still 70 million wood stoves in Europe.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 billion people in developing nations still cook using open fires or inefficient stoves fueled by kerosene, biomass (wood, charcoal, animal dung, or crop waste), and coal. These fuels generate harmful indoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution is estimated to cause more than 3 million deaths annually in poor nations. Emerging nations need gas fuels to boost health and well-being.

The great news is that gas fuels are increasingly used in developing nations, reducing illness and death from cooking. For example, in 2016 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a program to provide liquid petroleum gas (LPG) to 200 million people, making India the second largest LPG importer. About 70 percent of US propane production is exported as the key component of LPG, mostly to Eastern Asia.

Gas became the primary fuel for generating electricity in developed nations over the last three decades. Natural gas rose from 12.6% of US electricity generation in 1990 to 43.1% in 2023. By 2022, gas had become the leading fuel for electric power in Italy (48%), Netherlands (59%), and the UK (36%).

The combination of rising gas use to generate electricity, the use of scrubbers on coal plants, and the reduction in vehicle pollution has produced vastly improved air quality in recent decades. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that US ambient air pollution declined by 78% from 1970 to 2020.

Despite the benefits of reduced indoor and outdoor pollution from rising gas use, gas fuels are under attack. Driven by the ideology of Climatism, the fear of human-caused climate change, advocates for net-zero energy policies demand the elimination of gas to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

But carbon dioxide is an odorless, harmless, invisible gas. It doesn’t cause smoke or smog. Increased levels of atmospheric CO2 boost plant growth. Carbon dioxide should not be called a pollutant.

Nevertheless, US President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and other leaders have called for a net-zero electric grid by 2035. Twenty-three US states now have net-zero electricity targets by 2050. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Switzerland, totaling about half of Europe’s electricity, have pledged to eliminate CO2-emitting power plants by 2035.

A war rages in Europe over the elimination of gas appliances. The governments of Germany, Netherlands, and the UK seek to force homeowners to spend thousands of euros or pounds to switch from gas appliances to electric heat pumps to reduce CO2 emissions. Amsterdam recently announced that it would become “aardgasvrij,” or gas-free, by 2040. But conservative gains in European Union elections this month reflect a popular backlash against efforts to eliminate gas fuels and force acceptance of net-zero policies.

In the US, cities and counties in six states, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Oregon, and Washington, along with Washington D.C., enacted statutes banning natural gas in new construction. New York passed the All-Electric Buildings Act in 2023, a state-wide ban prohibiting gas appliances in new one- to six-story buildings by 2026. But 20 other US states have passed laws preventing local governments from passing ordinances that ban gas fuels.

Despite misguided government efforts to eliminate gas, consumption of natural gas and other gas fuels continues to rise. World natural gas consumption has doubled since 1995.

Green energy advocates have it exactly wrong. Adoption of gas fuels did more to reduce air pollution over the last 60 years than any other energy source. Gas consumption will continue to rise for decades to come.

Steve Goreham is a speaker on energy, the environment, and public policy and the author of the bestselling book Green Breakdown: The Coming Renewable Energy Failure.

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