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Why does a carbon dioxide shortage matter so much to the UK economy?

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of industrial production, but it has a wide range of uses across numerous industries: from cooling nuclear power plants and extending the life of packaged fruit and vegetables, to surgical procedures and the sedating of animals during slaughter. The UK is one of Europe’s largest users of CO2.

What is CO2 used in?

CO2 is widely used across the food industry in production and packaging, and is of particular importance to the meat sector.

The gas is essential for the humane slaughter of livestock as it is used to stun pigs and chickens.

It is also widely used in the packaging of fresh meats, fresh produce such as salad and baked goods, where CO2 prevents bacteria forming and extends the shelf life of the products.

CO2 is widely used in fizzy drinks and beer and is also vital to cooling systems used to refrigerate products. It is also used to create dry ice, which can be used to keep food fresh for storage and transport.

Related: Cheshire relief at CO2 rescue: ‘Can you imagine, no bacon or sausages?’

Meanwhile, the food industry says that the gas can encourage the healthy growth of vegetables in greenhouses, and can be used to purify drinking water.

Surgeons use the gas to stabilise body cavities during operations, and to freeze off warts and moles.

How do you make CO2?

Carbon dioxide is created as a byproduct during the industrial manufacture of ammonia, alcohol and fertilisers, as well as being emitted by power plants.

The UK currently emits around 350m tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, and is preparing to take major steps to driving this figure down to net zero by 2050. So fears of a CO2 shortage could at first glance appear to be good news.

However, to produce carbon dioxide which is pure enough to be used in fizzy drinks, food packaging and abattoirs, specialist equipment is required to capture, purify and separate gases.

In the UK, it is most often chemical companies that are equipped to produce food-grade CO2 rather than fossil fuel power plants.

How did the UK become reliant on two plants?

Until recently, the UK’s food industry has been able to rely on a steady supply of carbon dioxide from two fertiliser plants in the north of England for up to 60% of its CO2. So the shock decision by owner US firm CF Industries to shut the plants prompted serious concerns.

The concentration of so much CO2 production in the hands of a single owner – as part of a joint venture established in 2007 – was investigated at the time by the Competition commission, according to industry body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). The commission insisted on certain remedies to address the reduction in competition in supply of the gas.

Currently, a further 20% of the UK’s carbon dioxide is produced by other plants in the UK, and the remainder is imported from overseas.

Could the UK rely on imports?

Approximately 20% of the UK’s carbon dioxide is imported, mostly from plants in Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

However, soaring energy prices are also having an impact on European firms.

A number of sizeable EU fertiliser companies are also stopping or significantly cutting back their production, either for scheduled maintenance or as a result of rocketing costs, which will mean a considerable reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide produced on the continent. This could also further squeeze UK supplies.

Can the UK become self-sufficient; could new technology help?

Brewers had their fingers burned by the global shortage of carbon dioxide in 2018, which occurred during a football World Cup, a key moment for sales of beer.

As a result, many of the industry’s largest players have invested in new technology in the past few years, which allows them to capture CO2 produced during the fermentation process, store it, and then re-use it to carbonate their beer.

More widely, there are hopes of wider industry adoption of carbon capture and storage technology. This would involve storing carbon dioxide captured from power plant emissions beneath the North Sea, but academics believe it could also be repurposed as food-grade CO2.

However, these future technologies will come as cold comfort to the food industry this winter.

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