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CO2 Shortage Highlights that It’s Not Always the Bad Guy

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Read time: 2 minutes

Say the words “carbon dioxide” to many people and often the first connotations that come to mind are negative things like emissions and global warming. Many governments around the globe are going to great lengths to reduce harmful emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2), which remain worryingly high. However, believe it or not, a CO2 shortage is currently causing havoc in many areas of the food and beverage industry.

Why do we have too little CO2 and why is it a problem?

Much of the food grade CO2 used by drinks manufacturers to put the fizz into products from lemonade to lager is a by-product of ammonia production, an essential constituent of fertilizer. Ammonia production plants normally shut down over the summer period for routine maintenance when demand is at a lull. However, this year an unfortunate set of co-ordinating circumstances have led to the current shortage. With a dip in the price for ammonia, facilities have closed early in mainland Europe and the UK and have less urgency to get back up and running, creating a shortfall in supply of CO2 over demand.

Speaking to Sky News, Brigid Simmonds, Chief Executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said “We are aware of a situation affecting the availability of CO2 across Europe, which has now started to impact beer producers in the UK. We have recommended our members to continue to liaise with their providers directly where they have concerns over supply. We will continue to monitor the situation carefully. However, given the time of year and the World Cup, this situation has arisen at an unfortunate time for the brewing industry.”

What are the implications beyond no fizz for your drink?

The drinks industry are not the only ones that have been hard hit. CO2 is used to fill food packing to keep items fresher for longer, during crude oil extraction and to make dry ice, essential for the transportation of some foods, medical and scientific materials, and to facilitate chemical processes.

More worryingly from a welfare perspective, CO2 is also deemed one of the most humane ways to stun pigs and chickens prior to slaughter. Alternative methods, such as electrical shock or cervical dislocation in the case of chickens, may be legally permissible but facilities equipped to handle these methods may not be available, especially at such short notice.

Consequently, some abattoirs have had to close their doors, including Scotland’s largest which handles over 6,000 pigs per week, as a temporary measure until a stable supply of CO2 can be established. This however, creates alternative welfare problems of overcrowding as backlogs build up.

How is the situation being addressed?

“But why not just pull some of the excess out of the air where we don’t want it and use that?” you cry – surely a win-win?

If only it were that easy! In short, it’s more complicated, especially on a large scale and many times more expensive. However, scientists and engineers are beginning to break ground in this area with the opening of Climeworks last year in Switzerland which extracts carbon dioxide from the air and uses it to feed tomato and cucumber plants in a neighbouring greenhouse. A Canadian company, with the backing of Bill Gates, is currently working on making an affordable alternative that will cut the cost of extraction from air to under $100 per tonne of CO2. Whilst their promising results, published in the journal Joule earlier this year, could show a source for the future, right now the technology and infrastructure to make it a viable supply in the current situation just isn’t there.

Speaking to the BBC, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs commented it “is aware that there are reports of a CO2 shortage” and is in contact with the industry and gas suppliers "to understand the implications of the situation".

In the meantime, some suppliers are now limiting consumers to the quantities of certain CO2-dependant products they may purchase, and both Ocado and Morrisons have suspended home deliveries of frozen foods which require dry ice during transit.

Indications from the industry journal Gasworld are that issues will continue for at least another week. However, even when supplies return, it will take time to satisfy the deficit are clear the backlog of demand which may be too long for some small producers.

Could better channels of communication have avoided this situation in the first place?