Britain's Carbon Dioxide Shortage Sends Important Message: Everything Is Connected

This cautionary tale has implications and lessons for everyone.

CF Industries Teeside Fertilizer Plant
CF Industries Teeside Fertilizer Plant.

 Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

It seems so strange in a world that has too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air that a nation could actually run out of it. But that's what is happening in the United Kingdom right now—and it is a cautionary tale for us all.

The price of natural gas has soared to all-time highs around the world, but especially in the U.K. When gas was cheap thanks to fracking in the U.S., much of it was used for electricity generation and coal-fired plants were shut down. A lot of it was liquified and shipped to Asia; Japan burns a lot of it since it shut down its nuclear reactors. Water is low behind the dams in the western U.S., generating less hydro power. Much of Europe gets its gas from Russia, and some think the Russians are playing games to get approval for the controversial Nord Stream 2 Pipeline. And of course, the climate arsonists are blaming undependable wind turbines.

This will all get worse when the weather gets cold and the furnaces and boilers are turned on. Consultants are already predicting that we face the possibility of winter blackouts and the certainty of very high gas and electric bills.

Ammonia Production
Ammonia production with CO2 as byproduct.

Francis Williams on Wikipedia

But right now the high gas prices are seriously affecting industrial users of gas, such as CF industries in the U.K., which uses natural gas to make ammonia (NH3)—the main component of fertilizer. In an earlier post, we explained how the Haber-Bosch process uses a lot of hydrogen: The H in the NH3 is made by steam reformation of natural gas, the friendly name for methane, which is CH4. When steam (H2O) reacts with the CH4, you get the H2 needed for the ammonia and a lot of CO2. The carbon dioxide is collected and sold for industrial uses.

But the gas prices are high, and at this time of year, there is less demand for fertilizer, so CF Industries has stopped making the stuff and suddenly, there is not enough carbon dioxide. This is causing ripples across the economy as we learn how important carbon dioxide is. It's not just for fizzy drinks and your SodaStream, but it also pushes the beer to the tap, affecting the pubs. A big user of the gas is the poultry industry—it stuns the birds before slaughter. Now they are talking about "canceling Christmas" due to the lack of turkeys.

It's used with pigs too. According to The Guardian, "Meat industry representatives have warned that farmers may imminently be required to begin 'humane' pig culls because of a looming shortage of carbon dioxide to slaughter the backlog of animals destined for abattoirs."

English Crumpets need CO2.

Clubfoto/ Getty Images

And horror of British horrors, headlines are saying "it's gone too far now." The lack of CO2 has crumpled crumpet production; CO2 is used in "modified atmosphere packaging" to prolong shelf life and keep them looking fresh.

While this post was being written, the British government apparently hammered out a deal to restart production at the Teeside fertilizer plant with "limited financial support," not saying how much money was being spent. The head of the National Farmers Union says this is a good start, but notes:

"Users of carbon dioxide were given little to no warning that supplies were going to be cut off – an indication of market failure in a sector supporting our critical national infrastructure. Urgent clarity is needed on the detail, including timings and volumes established in the agreement."

We are going to see more of this everywhere

This is not just a peculiarly British form of carbon crisis, and it shows that everything is connected. Who would have thought that expensive gas might cancel Christmas or crumpets? It is doubtful that other countries are more resilient or prepared.

Earlier this year, when the gas supply and the electrical system froze up in Texas, Treehugger talked with futurist Alex Steffen about critical national infrastructure when what he called "brittleness," the condition of being subject to sudden, catastrophic failure.

"We're living in a planetary emergency. One of the most severe symptoms of that emergency is the loss of predictability – the need to prepare for a wider variety of foreseeable disasters. To be caught catastrophically unprepared by the unexpected is a failure of leadership."

Steffen said the way to beat this is to get ruggedized: "That is, they can be protected in a variety of ways that lower their risk of sudden catastrophic failure. The problem is, ruggedization costs money, sometimes a lot."

According to The Wall Street Journal, "natural-gas prices have surged, prompting worries about winter shortages and forecasts for the most expensive fuel since frackers flooded the market more than a decade ago" and the supply shortages are continuing.

"Mean­while, sup­plies have been de­pleted by a se­ries of weather events. Feb­ruary’s freeze in Texas lifted de­mand while clog­ging wells with ice. June and July were the hottest on record and drought out West dried up hy­dropower pro­duc­tion, which meant more gas than nor­mal was needed to power air con­di­tion­ers. Late last month Hur­ri­cane Ida forced nearly all of the Gulf of Mex­i­co’s gas out­put off­line. More than a third of the Gulf’s gas pro­duc­tion re­mained shut as of Fri­day, ac­cord­ing to the Bu­reau of Safety and En­vi­ron­men­tal En­force­ment."

These kinds of weather events are not going away. As we have said every time this happens, the key is to ruggedize and to insulate so that we don't need as much gas or electricity to stay warm or cool. During another crisis I wrote about what we have to do to use less gas:

"Every building should have a proven level of insulation, air tightness, and window quality so that people are comfortable in all kinds of weather, even when the power goes out. This is because our houses have become lifeboats, and leaks may well be fatal."