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Canoe Executive Chef Ron McKinlay cooks on an induction stove on June 13. Since it opened 28 years ago, chefs at the Toronto restaurant have been using induction stoves.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At Fat Mao Noodles in downtown Vancouver, all four burners of the open kitchen’s induction cooktop are on the go.

Tatsanee Lim, one of the cooks in the 25-seat Thai diner, first learned her craft using woks, heated over the open flame of a natural gas stove. But she has made the transition to the flat-bottomed stainless steel pots and cast iron pans required for an induction cooktop.

“It’s safe and fast,” Ms. Lim said in the kitchen, preparing everything from Thai rice soup to braised beef noodles.

They are safe because induction cooktops don’t get hot like conventional stoves, as they use an electromagnetic field to heat pots and pans. And they can bring a pot of water to boil in roughly half the time.

“When we’re cooking, I think it’s nice and clean,” Ms. Lim said after the lunchtime rush. “We love it.”

Next door, though, at Tokyo Joe’s, Japanese stir-fry noodles and soups are still being prepared the traditional way, on a gas stovetop.

Climate activists tout induction cooktops as being more energy efficient than gas stoves or even traditional electric cooktops and therefore better for the environment. Some groups, such as the Sierra Club, Fridays for Future and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), are hoping to persuade politicians to restrict or even ban the use of gas stoves, first in new builds and then in retrofits.

Health officials point to the indoor air pollution created by gas cooktops as yet another reason to ditch them for induction appliances.

But if natural gas or propane distribution companies have their way in the climate fight in the kitchen, the foreseeable future will look like the setup at Tokyo Joe’s.

Canoe, the high-end restaurant on the 54th floor of downtown Toronto’s TD Bank Tower, has been a long-timer user of induction technology. When it opened in 1995, safety codes for high-rise towers required that it use electricity as an energy source.

Today, with the energy transition and the fight against climate change at the forefront of political discourse, Canoe has emerged as a shining example of how a large kitchen can handle a flurry of orders without gas stoves. The 213-seat restaurant now has five induction cooktops, with four elements each.

“Moving forward in this industry, if this is something that’s going to help with climate change, then I’m all for it,” Canoe executive chef Ron McKinlay said over the phone before the lunchtime rush. “But there is a little bit inside me that definitely misses cooking with an open flame every now and then.”

But the induction cooktops at Canoe and Fat Mao are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to restaurants in most of Canada.

Ian Tostenson, the president of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association, says restricting or banning gas stoves would be a slippery slope – it would be reckless and too costly for restaurants to convert to induction cooking.

But for that and other reasons, the gas stove has become a polarizing political issue, especially in the United States.

Last month, New York approved a state budget that includes banning stoves and furnaces fuelled by natural gas from most new buildings, the first state to do so.

Matt Gaetz, a controversial Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, sought to frame the issue earlier this year as one that places personal freedoms at risk in the culture wars. On Twitter, he shared a six-second video of blue flames from a burner on a gas stove and wrote: “You’ll have to pry it from my COLD DEAD HANDS!”

In Canada, the debate has been less inflammatory but still intense.

CAPE cautions that natural gas is a fossil fuel and burning it produces greenhouse gases that contribute to the warming of the planet; producing it is also a dirty business, as drilling can cause methane leaks at the wellhead.

And turning on a gas stove releases contaminants that can be harmful to children with asthma, CAPE warns.

In 2020, the non-profit group launched an online campaign targeting B.C. homeowners, hoping to persuade them to gradually phase out stoves, fireplaces, furnaces, hot water tanks, dryers and any other appliances powered by natural gas.

Canada’s Competition Bureau launched an investigation last November into marketing claims by the Canadian Gas Association that natural gas is clean and affordable, after CAPE complained that such claims are an example of greenwashing – making exaggerated claims about environmental benefits.

If nothing else, climate activists hope to convince homeowners to ditch their gas stoves and switch to induction cooktops, though provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia still generate much of their electricity from power plants fired by natural gas or coal.

There’s resistance on several fronts.

Vancouver City Councillor Lenny Zhou says it would be discriminatory to mandate the use of electric appliances in kitchens, either in restaurants or people’s homes. Boosters of gas stoves say that for stir-fry dishes, using a wok above an open flame results in tastier food, with smoky flavours. Mr. Zhou says a wide range of dishes in Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and South Asian cooking require open flames.

There is certainly the entertainment appeal of gas stoves, the gourmet theatrics of blue flames under a wok or frying pan – primal sights and smells that create an enjoyable experience as family and friends bond over meals.

Gas stoves also allow chefs to have greater control over heat, but fans of induction cooking say there have been several technological improvements over the years, including a nifty feature that allows you to simmer broth overnight at a precise temperature.

So far, natural gas demand is still growing in Canada. FortisBC, the largest distributor of natural gas in B.C., added about 10,800 accounts last year, expanding its provincial market to almost 1.08 million customers.

In Ontario, Enbridge Inc.’s ENB-T gas distribution unit added about 45,000 accounts last year to boost its network in the province to more than 3.9 million customers.

“It’s not possible to move down the electrification route without some natural gas when you need it,” Enbridge chief executive officer Greg Ebel said in an interview.

Natural gas fireplaces are also being targeted by climate activists, but Mr. Ebel is an unabashed defender of the fossil fuel. “People expect us to keep their homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and that can only be done with a full panoply of energy sources and utilization,” he said.

But despite the fossil fuel industry’s portrayal of natural gas as more affordable than hydroelectricity, climate activists say it’s more important than ever to look at ways to reach net zero.

Vancouver City Councillor Adriane Carr, a former B.C. Green Party leader, submitted a motion recently to ban natural gas in new residential construction for any purpose, including cooking and fireplaces.

“Scientists are saying that we have to move much, much more quickly on the decarbonization of our economy and our buildings,” she told her fellow councillors.

Ms. Carr’s motion was subsequently amended by another councillor to avoid any such ban. Still, the motion prompted a fierce debate that included assertions by industry officials that using natural gas should be viewed as a right, not a privilege.

“The proposed outright ban of natural gas in new construction will negatively impact consumer choice and restrict access to vital backup heating options,” said Mike McNeice, the director of public affairs at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association of Canada.

There is growing interest in renewable natural gas, a niche fuel derived from organic waste. But Larry Barzelai, the chair of the B.C. branch of CAPE, said it’s not a viable solution because supplies are limited. “It is expensive to produce and creates the same indoor air pollution when it burns in stoves,” Dr. Barzelai said.

The fossil fuel industry insists that gas stoves are safe to use, noting that proper ventilation is important for air quality, regardless of the heat source.

Siraz Dalmir, the community relations manager at FortisBC, said B.C.’s building code for energy efficiency allows for gas stoves in new residential construction. “Any credible pathway to net zero will need to harness the strengths of both gas and electric systems,” Mr. Dalmir said.

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