NEWS
21/09/2021 11:50 BST | Updated 21/09/2021 15:15 BST

CO2 Shortage: Why Is The UK In Trouble?

The UK is always trying to reduce CO2 emissions but now a major shortage could spell trouble for several industries.

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Empty supermarket shelves are expected in 10 days' time

The UK’s CO2 supplies have halved meaning there could be widespread food and drink shortages across the country.

CO2 – carbon dioxide – is a colourless, odourless gas produced during combusting, fermentation, decomposition and when animals exhale.

As a greenhouse gas, CO2 has accelerated the global climate crisis by preventing heat from leaving our atmosphere and changing weather patterns.

A recent UN report found that human activity is producing too many carbon emissions and causing some irreversible harm to the environment, while campaigns encouraging the public to reduce their carbon footprint have existed for years.

What do we use CO2 for?

Although the gas causes environmental damage elsewhere, food-grade CO2 is used in products across the food and drink industry.

It carbonates water, alcohol and soft drinks, dispenses drinks in pubs, promotes plants growth in greenhouses, is used to extend shelf life of various foods, including meats, and used to keep food fresh in transport.

CO2 is also used for medical purposes, such as to stimulate breathing or to remove warts and moles, and commercially in fire extinguishers and inflating life jackets.

So why is a national shortage of CO2 worrying?

Without it, the “just-in-time” ordering system used by supermarkets could collapse.

One supermarket executive told the BBC: “The big meat suppliers are saying they have two to three days’ supply and are now having to prioritise how they use what they have.”

The Food and Drink Federation said although the UK was not going to run out of food, there would be consequences.

It continued: “The knock-on effects of this may well be felt right the way through to the end of the year and particularly over the key Christmas trading period.”

Consumers are expected to notice a shortage of supermarket items within 10 days. 

What has caused this CO2 shortage?

Wholesale gas prices have shot up recently due to a recent shortage triggered by a range of international factors.

As a result, two UK fertiliser factories on Teesside and in Cheshire have stopped working – and they make CO2 as a by-product.

Without these two factories, there has been a 60% fall in the UK’s food-grade CO2 supply.

Can it be easily fixed?

While there have been CO2 shortages before back in 2018, a solution is tricky.

Lilah Howson-Smith with political risk consultancy Global Counsel told the BBC that it depends on the supply and demand for fertiliser, rather than for CO2 itself.

She added: “That means there is a real fractured sense of responsibility when it comes to solving the problem.”

She also pointed out that there was a “no single point of responsibility in government”, as the problem is shared between agriculture, business and the. Cabinet Office.

Yet, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is hoping to reach a deal on Tuesday with a US fertiliser to resume CO2 production.

Can we combine the food-grade CO2 shortage with our overflow of CO2 emissions?

Professor Stuart Haszeldine, specialist in carbon capture and storage at Edinburgh University, told Radio 4′s Today programme: “We would need to capture carbon dioxide at immense scales, tens, hundreds of millions of tonnes per year, much more than is needed for fire extinguishers, food packaging or dry cleaning.

“That is something we can and should be doing – it’s likely this year that the government will announce two industrial complexes which will be starting to capture very large amounts of CO2.”

These complexes are intended to reduce our impact on climate change, but it could also increase the diversity of supply for CO2 in UK.

He added: “The wholesale use of CO2 is relatively minor compared with the millions of tonnes which need to be captured and stored underground to reduce the effects of climate change.”

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 A climate change protester holding a placard which says 'CO2 Kills Millions of Children' in August