Too much carbon dioxide here, too little there

In a world awash in too much carbon dioxide, it’s remarkable that some places have too little of the stuff.

Britain recently warned food producers to prepare for a 400-per-cent rise in the price of carbon-dioxide because of a shortage.

image: The Guardian

Carbon dioxide is important to food producers because it’s used to put the fizz into beer and sodas and stun poultry and pigs before slaughter. Some producers warn that there could be a (gasp) shortage of Christmas turkeys.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson brushed aside worries over a lack of turkeys. His government has extending emergency support to subsidize the increased cost of CO2 and avert a shortage of poultry and meat.

The shortage of CO2 has been triggered by soaring costs of natural gas.

What has the shortage of natural gas got to do with the shortage of C02?

Well, it turns out that CO2 is a by-product of the European fertilizer industry which uses natural gas as an input. They make it by combining nitrogen in the air with hydrogen from the natural gas to produce ammonia. Ammonia is then used to create fertilizer, and CO2 is left over.

Why is the cost of natural gas soaring?

Natural gas prices have spiked this year as economies reopened from COVID-19 lockdowns. The high demand for liquefied natural gas in Asia pushed down supplies to Europe, sending shock waves through industries reliant on the energy source.

Inventories of natural gas are low because production hasn’t caught up with demand. Uncertainties that occurred during the global pandemic made producers reluctant to invest in new drilling for natural gas.

Canadian natural gas inventories are at five-year lows. Exports from North American LNG facilities are also running at peak volume to meet global demand, draining supplies.

This is bad news for B.C. users of natural gas as prices will increase an average of $8 per month in the Interior starting in October.

This is good news for investors in B.C.’s proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects for export to Asia as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But isn’t the use of natural gas to produce fertilizer a dumb idea when natural gas is a valuable source of heating for homes?

Yes, it is a dumb idea because fertilizer can also be made from potash. Potash is abundant in Saskatchewan, one of the largest sources in the world. Potash deposits are left over from a large inland sea that once filled North America. 

However if CO2 isn’t produced as a by-product of making fertilizer, where will  the food industry get CO2 from?

Good question. With all of that CO2 in the atmosphere and a shortage on the ground, there must be a way to take it from the atmosphere.

There is. It’s called carbon capture and it works by passing air laden with CO2 over chemicals. The problem in the past has been that the cost of production of CO2 exceeds the price it can be sold for. But with the price of CO2 soaring, carbon capture could be profitable.

And why should I care about the price of CO2?

Because I use it for making beer.  Good thing I topped up my tank before the price hikes.

Canada goes nuclear

Canada is third in the world in replacing fossil fuels with nuclear. France and Sweden have replaced almost all of their fossil-fuelled generated electricity with nuclear power. Now France generates only six per cent of electricity with fossil fuels and Sweden only one per cent.

Darlington Nuclear Plant, Ontario

Canada comes behind France and Sweden in replacing fossil fuels. Now fossil fuels generate 19 per cent of our electricity. Canada has an advantage with hydroelectricity: hydro generates 59 per cent of our total.  Nuclear generates 15 per cent and wind/solar generate 7 per cent.

Ontario is mainly responsible for Canada’s third place position. In 2003, the Ontario government started phasing out coal-fired generators. At the time, coal generated one-quarter of the province’s electricity. By 2014, coal was gone. Now 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear plants, not far behind France at 77 per cent (Globe and Mail, June 21, 2019).

Other countries aren’t even close to top three. In the United States, 67 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels. In Germany, despite massive subsidies for wind and solar, 55 per cent of their electricity comes from fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy is the most dangerous source of electricity in the world, except for the alternative. Nuclear meltdowns are spectacular but deaths are much fewer than those from fossil fuels.

The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in 1986 killed 50 first responders and will likely kill 25,000 from cancer resulting from radiation. There were no direct deaths from radiation when a tsunami hit the Fukushima Nuclear station in 2011 but radiation from the plant is expected to generate 180 cases of cancer. Fukushima was second largest nuclear disaster in history, after Chernobyl.

The burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, causes 7.3 million premature deaths annually according to the World Health Organization. Not all of those deaths are from the production of electricity but coal generates 41 per cent of the world’s electricity. Extrapolating those numbers means that coal sourced electricity kills 3 million people annually.

The burning of fossil fuels is the greatest threat to humanity. Our very existence in some parts of the planet is at risk due to climate change.

Misconceptions over nuclear energy abound. One in three Canadians think nuclear power plants emit as much carbon dioxide as burning oil. Almost three in 10 think it emits more. Nuclear energy plants emit no carbon dioxide.

You hear about the nuclear plants that blow up or melt down but not much about the about 450 now in operation, most in the U.S., with 60 more reactors under construction worldwide.

Nuclear plants have their problems. They are expensive to build and disposal of spent radioactive fuel is controversial.

Nuclear power is a taboo topic in politics. I can guarantee that you won’t hear any of the leaders of Canada’s three main political parties even mention the word nuclear prior to the upcoming federal election.

Environmentalists despise nuclear energy as being too risky. Some unions support it, such as the Power Workers Union who placed full-page ads in the Globe and Mail praising nuclear power. Most Canadians, I suspect, would rather not think about it.