It’s environmental irony at it’s finest; Europe has been hit by a shortage of carbon dioxide. Despite desperate calls for a curb on the production of carbon dioxide (CO2), it turns out that the stuff is essential for the little luxuries in life. The shortage is threatening to put the staples of the Great British summer out of reach. Beer, soft drinks, meat for the barbecue and even the packaging for salad ingredients are all in jeopardy.
Unlike the accumulation in the atmosphere that is emitted from car exhausts, coal plants, and natural gas reserves, food grade CO2 is captured to put the fizz in otherwise deflated drinks, the preservative atmosphere to stop packaged goods going out of date, and to stun animals before being neatly dissected for your grill. More alarmingly, CO2 is used extensively in healthcare to sterilise equipment and for invasive surgeries.
This useful form of the gas is made as a byproduct of the production of fertiliser from natural gas and ammonia. Special equipment captures the CO2 before it escapes into the air, where it’s bottled up and sold on to drinks producers, food companies and health care providers. Far from the likes of carbon dioxide that unwittingly bubbles up into the atmosphere from chemical reactions in industrial plants and car engines, food grade CO2 is effectively borrowed before floating up to join the rest above the clouds.
The shortage is the result of poor planning from fertiliser plants across continental Europe and the UK, who routinely shut down for maintenance works over summer when fertiliser isn’t needed. The problem is that more plants than usual have shut down over the same period. But over the hottest summer on record with the World Cup blaring from TVs around the world, an unprecedented surge of a need for refreshing, sparkly beverages has compounded with the shortage.
In a world choked by too much of the gas above the clouds, on the ground below, our luxurious lifestyles are being curbed by too little. The shortage is looking to continue into September, even with supplies being brought in from Poland and Germany. With carbon capture being touted as the most needed clean up technology for our planet, perhaps innovation should look into converting the dangerous gas into something useful. Maybe this new slant on the application of CO2 will make us think more carefully about the utility of this versatile gas that we’re so keen to pump out of our cars and into our cans.