CO2 shortage?

We read a lot about climate change, caused by CO2 emissions, but I never realised that CO2 is actually produced by gas manufacturers for customers in the food and beverages industry. CO2 is used to make soft drinks, beer and cider fizz, and it is also used in the slaughterhouses to stun chickens and pigs. The solid form of carbon dioxide, dry ice, is used to transport frozen products. Because of the CO2 shortage, Ocado, an online retailer, cut back on frozen food promotions, and Scotland’s biggest pig abattoir closed down for a day, to mention some of the effects1.

But in none of the articles I read on the subject, the obvious2 question was asked: why not use the CO2 emissions that are to blame for climate change? Well, as it turns out, there are several technologies to extract CO2 from the air, however they are at best in a pilot stage, and the questions are if they can be scaled up, if it is financially feasible3, and what to do with the extracted CO24. Apparently, it needs to be stored, which pops another question: why not use the extracted COto put fizz in drinks?

Believe it or not, but CO2 has to satisfy quality requirements, and atmospheric air contains oil vapour derived from industrial processes and vehicle exhaust5, that do not go well with the taste of beer or cola. This does not mean it cannot be used, CO2 is produced as a by-product in large scale chemical processes6, like beer production5. However, the concentration of COis much higher near the exhaust, then in the air, so I assume cost have something to do with it. The only question that remains to be answered is: is opening a beer or a soda-can similar to methane-producing burping and farting cows?

How can you use this in your lesson?

Since the CO2-shortage affects the food and beverages industry, it affects the supply of food and beverages in the short run.  What do your students think? If price goes up does supply go up in the short run7? And how does this affect both the supply curve for COand, for instance, for soft drinks?8

  1. CO2 shortage takes toll on business, Financial Times, 26 June 2018 and CO2 shortage: Why it really matters for the UK’s food and drink supply, BBC News, 27 June 2018
  2. Obvious to me, but maybe not to you – you may already know the answer.
  3. “The challenge here is to bring the cost of this process to below $40 per ton of carbon removed, since this is the estimated cost to the planet of our emissions. At the moment, most methods cost more than $100 per ton.” Source: Saving the world with carbon dioxide removal (see below)
  4. Saving the world with carbon dioxide removal, The Washington Post, Peter Wadhams, 8 January 2018 and Can We Really Scrub Carbon Dioxide From the Atmosphere?, New York Times,  Livia Albeck-Ripka, Henry Fountain and Lisa Friedman, 28 February 2018
  5. The Importance of Maintaining CO2 Gas Quality in Bottling Applications | Case Study, Parker, Compressed Air & Gas Treatment Team, 30 May 2017
  6. Why it really matters for the UK’s food and drink supply, BBC News, 27 June 2018
  7. This depends on the presence of excess capacity. BBC News says “A number of big mainland European fertiliser plants closed down for routine maintenance. Peak consumption for fertiliser is the winter, so chemical companies have traditionally scaled back production as summer approaches. Also, the current low price of ammonia means producers have little incentive to restart production quickly.” So, yes, there is excess capacity, however, since COis not the main product, it is not likely the plants will start up again, unless the price of CO2  could compensate for the storage cost of fertiliser.
  8. I would say the supply curve in the period of the CO2-shortage is about vertical: no matter what the price, the amount of COproduced stays the same. As for soft drinks, I assume the effect from the CO2-shortage on soft drinks is similar to the effect on beer and cider. The Financial Times writes “The Europe-wide shortfall of carbon dioxide has forced Booker, the food wholesaler, to ration beer and cider sales. Booker said it was restricting its customers to 10 cases of beer or five of cider/soft drinks per visit.” This also indicates a vertical supply curve during the period of the CO2-shortage.