Chris Barnard, Vice President of External Affairs at the American Conservation Coalition, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the costs and benefits of nuclear energy, the problems with the anti-nuclear movement, and the recent breakthrough in nuclear fusion.
Christopher Barnard: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 36 Transcript
The full interview between Chelsea Follett and Chris Barnard can be found here. The transcript is below.
Chelsea Follett: Joining me today is Chris Barnard, Vice President of External Affairs at the American Conservation Coalition, and the editor of the 2020 book, Green Market Revolution, how a Market Environmentalism Can protect Nature and Save the World. He was previously the president and founder of the British Conservation Alliance. His writings have been published in the Wall Street Journal, a National Review, daily Telegraph, the Washington Examiner, and many other outlets. And he’s also a fellow at the Bitcoin Policy Institute, but he joins the podcast today to discuss nuclear energy and the recent advances in fusion technology. Chris, how are you?
Christopher Barnard: I’m good. Thanks for having me on.
CF: Okay. So before we get into the latest news on Fusion, could you walk through some of the history of the challenges, technological and regulatory with regards to, fusion or nuclear energy more broadly?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. So obviously nuclear energy as an energy source and a technology emerged out of the Second World War, primarily within, kind of a military context. And there was a lot of potential to develop nuclear weapons, which ultimately were used in the Second World War, by the US military. But then scientists are realizing that actually the technology behind nuclear energy and the science behind it actually showed that it could also be, an energy source that was abundant, it was clean, and was very reliable. And so they started, in the United States, in the national labs developing, really nuclear energy as an energy source, not just a military application, but also as an energy application. And really kind of in the ’60s and the ’70s. This took the world by storm, I mean, countries across the world started building nuclear plants in the US and other countries like France, especially in Europe, really, kind of jumped on the nuclear bandwagon and started building a lot of these nuclear reactors.
CB: And when you build a nuclear reactor, it’s not like it just stays for a few years. Really, those things can last up to six, seven, maybe even eight decades if there was proper maintenance. And so a lot of the nuclear plants that we have nowadays were actually built, back in the ’60s and ’70s and are just still around. But then of course, at the same time, with the kind of some looming specter of World War II and the fact that nuclear bombs were used, on Japan, there was also a growing anti-nuclear movements that really, saw this energy source as a threat to world peace. You have to remember, this was during the Cold War era, so there was a lot of, fear that the Soviet Union and the US might enter in some kind of nuclear cold war, and it would be World War III and the end of the world.
CB: And there was really ultimately quite a lot of fear mongering about nuclear energy as an energy source. You had China bill that happened in, in Eastern Europe, under the USSR. And really a lot of people thought that having a nuclear plant in your backyard that it would eventually explode or something and really pose a huge threat to the local community. And so at the same time as a lot of countries were building nuclear plants, there was a kind of growing burgeoning anti-nuclear movement that really also opposed a lot of this. And so when you look to the situation today, we built all those nuclear plants in the ’60s and ’70s around like 50 years ago. And they’ve really produced a lot of energy, clean energy for the US and other countries. But because of that, that public relations perspective, that nuclear was dangerous and a threat.
CB: At some point the government stepped in and started introducing a bunch of regulations to really make nuclear, be more safe, and to really kind of assuage some of those public concerns. And so what happened is in the United States, we, created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and we created all kinds of rules and regulations around the production and insulation of nuclear plants. And the way that we did this actually really just reflected some of the, over-hyped fear against nuclear. And so in many ways, we actually started over-regulating, the industry. And what we did ultimately is what, what Lord Matt Ridley, said, we turned nuclear energy from a very, very safe energy source into a very, very, very safe energy source, but at what costs? And that cost really is clear that in the 21st century, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, approved only one new reactor.
CB: So in a period of three decades, actually starting in the 1990s, they’ve only approved one reactor design because of all the regulatory, burdens placed on this, and really kind of a lot of the PR problems that nuclear has. And so, while at some point back in the ’60s and ’70s, nuclear energy really looked like the future of the world in terms of producing clean, abundant, affordable energy, really we’ve not taken full advantage of that. And so right now what’s happening is that a lot of countries are really regretting the fact that they didn’t invest more in nuclear energy because we have an energy crisis right now, historic inflation. And now increasingly with governments concerned about reducing emissions and tackling climate change, they’re thinking it would be nice to have abundant clean energy. But unfortunately, we’ve created regulatory structures and burdens that really haven’t allowed this energy source to thrive as much as it could.
CF: Now, you published a piece last year in The Wall Street Journal, about a sea change in how people are thinking about nuclear energy. It was titled the Global Nuclear Power Comeback. Could you describe this shift that we’re seeing now and how people are thinking about nuclear power?
CB: Yeah, of course. And really I mentioned Chernobyl, which was kind of the nuclear meltdown, in the USSR. And then obviously we also had Fukushima, which was the meltdown in Japan, which happened, in 2011. And then we had Three Mile Island in the United States as well. And so you had these examples of nuclear, malfunctioning or whatever it was, and looking dangerous. I mean, obviously if you have a meltdown that’s, that’s not a good look for an energy source. And a lot of people kind of, they, this really emphasized the fear that people had. And a lot of people thought, well, we really should be moving away from nuclear energy. It’s just too dangerous. Obviously that doesn’t really reflect the facts that no one died at Fukushima. That really the death toll from Chernobyl was mostly due to communist incompetence rather than inherent problems with nuclear energy.
CB: But regardless, the PR problem kind of continued. And so while we were moving towards having more and more nuclear energy around the world, in 1996, it provided around 17% of global energy production. When you look at it today, it’s only around 10%. And the reality is that after Fukushima, after Three Mile Island, governments around the world really started turning against nuclear energy. So Japan pretty much completely denuclearized. Germany started its energy vendor so moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy towards renewable sources of energy. And so they started shutting down nuclear plants. And really that’s been reflected in countries around the world. And so what’s happened is that as we’ve moved away from nuclear, as we’ve moved away from fossil fuels, or in the process of doing that because we want to reduce emissions as well, a lot of countries are suddenly finding themselves with, a lack of energy security.
CB: When Russia invaded Ukraine, last year, this really heightened that tension because a lot of the energy that Europe was still dependent on was energy produced fossil fuels produced by Russia. And because they themselves, for example, Germany had shut down their nuclear plants, all of a sudden they were, they were realizing that they were almost completely reliant upon a tyrant and a belligerent country for their energy supplies. And nuclear really is, apart from fossil fuels, the only stable, reliable source of energy that can provide energy around the clock, pretty much 24/7. The capacity factor of a nuclear plant is upwards of 90%, which means that no matter what time of day, no matter what time of year, nuclear energy just produces steady, clean, affordable, abundant electricity. And so when countries are no longer wanting to import fossil fuels from Russia, when they’ve shut down their domestic nuclear plants, when they’ve built out more wind and solar, which is, which is clean, and it’s good to have those energy sources, but they are weather-dependent.
CB: And so sometimes you can’t rely on them as much as we’d like to. Then all of a sudden they’re finding themselves in the position of not having enough energy. And so really my article in The Wall Street Journal was talking about how countries around the world are all of a sudden waking up to the fact that they can’t have clean energy, reliable energy, and secure energy without nuclear energy. And so Japan pretty much reversed its denuclearization decision. They’re reopening nuclear plants. South Korea is building new nuclear plants. Even Germany has been talking about extending their nuclear plants. Belgium, which had, put a deadline to close all the nuclear plants in the country. They reversed that decision to extend the lifeline in California Diablo Canyon, which was set to close, was reversed. And it’s been extended not long enough, but it will hopefully continue to be extended. And that was under democratic support. And so you see all around the world, countries and governments waking up to the fact that you need nuclear energy, to meet our energy goals, to meet our climate goals and to meet our security goals. And so that’s really kind of, a wake up call that the world has had to deal with.
CF: Right. And that’s just, a fission nuclear energy. Could you, describe fusion nuclear energy and what, what’s going on with this latest breakthrough? How big of a deal is it?
CB: Yeah. So really when it comes to the pure science of nuclear energy, there’s really two types of processes that we can talk about. The traditional one, which are all the nuclear plants that are in existence today are fission nuclear plants. So that’s when you take, the atoms and you split the atoms, and then from splitting those atoms, you create energy. And that’s really kind of the typical, nuclear energy production that we have nowadays. Now, scientifically, we also know that you can create, a different process called fusion, which is when you take those hydrogen atoms and instead of splitting them, you fuse them, you bring them together. And in the process of doing that release an enormous amount of energy. However, the problem for really the entirety of the existence, of the history of our knowledge of fusion has been that it takes an enormous amount of energy to produce that fusion reaction.
CB: And in fact, it’s taken more energy to produce the reaction than the reaction actually produced. And so while we know that scientifically it’s possible to have fusion energy, the technology and innovation just hasn’t been there to allow that to happen. But that was up until, a month or so ago, on the 13th of December, the US Department of Energy, announced that one of its national laboratories, the Livermore National Lab, they announced that they had achieved fusion ignition for the first time in history, which means that, they were able to produce a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it used. And that’s the first time in history that that’s happened. And really, you kind of saw all over the world, people just amazed at the scientific breakthrough. You saw people across the political spectrum, politicians on both sides celebrating this, especially kind of the fact that it happened in America where the traditional fission reaction also was first created.
CB: And so this really was a huge breakthrough because, when you have a fusion reaction, you can actually theoretically produce four times more energy than a fission reaction, but doing so with a lot less radio activity and very minimal waste. And so obviously when we talk about nuclear energy, one of the big criticisms nowadays is that it’s, it produces radioactive waste. And there’s always kind of like the, that moniker is like, oh, so what are you gonna do about nuclear waste? And obviously we have, we have some solutions to that, but if you can create an energy source that doesn’t even produce barely any of that waste, that would be even better. And so that’s what the, the future of fusion holds for us.
CF: Now, we finally, with this breakthrough had, a net positive energy production, but it was by a very small amount, right? It was sort of a proof of, of concept. What’s, what do you think, we’re looking at in terms of the likelihood that this becomes an actual source of energy that is practical to use on a wide scale?
CB: Yeah, of course. I mean, it was, 100 trillionth of a second that we were able to like have that actual energy. And so by no means was it, like usable energy for electricity, like residential electricity or any of that stuff. And in fact, like the lasers that we used for it, when you take into account the electricity that we use to charge the lasers, it actually still used more energy than it produced. And when you also take into account the fact that the lasers take an entire data charge, that if we, if it takes an entire data charge to have one trillionth of a second or whatever it was of energy, obviously that’s not scale, that’s not usable at this point, right? But it does show that scientifically it is possible to do this. And the research that has come out of MIT and of national labs have confirmed this, that there is a path to making this happen.
CB: It will just take continued innovation and technological breakthrough. So I mean, there’s a lot of debate about the extent to which, fusion will be able to become commercialized within the next few decades. Lord Matt Ridley, who I mentioned earlier and who frequently contributes to human progress, he believes that within the next 15 years, we might see, a commercial fusion reactor. Others say it’ll take a little bit longer. It might be by 2050, but whatever the date is, it’s gonna be huge for humanity because you can produce basically limitless clean energy at an extraordinarily affordable costs. And so it’ll, it’ll just take continued innovation and technological breakthrough.
CF: What role would you say competition because it’s not just the Lawrence, Livermore lab, but two or three private companies are also trying to do fusion. Now there are a couple of different players. What role is competition playing in these advances? Because even for, you know, the government, I’ve heard it argue that Lawrence Livermore is responding to private sector competition. It has to try to justify its budget, and so that puts more pressure on the scientific team there as well for making these kinds of advances. What role would you say competition is playing in driving this technology forward?
CB: Yeah, I mean, originally when we created kind of nuclear fission reactions, through the national labs and the military applications and all that kind of stuff, back in the, in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, obviously that was government funded. And that was kind of a public dollars going towards that. But then companies started realizing the potential of creating this energy source, and they started like stepping in and building these nuclear plants across the country. And we’re actually kind of seeing somewhat of a similar direction for nuclear fusion. So obviously you have the national labs that have invested in this, specifically Lawrence Livermore. You have universities like MIT that have, put a lot of, time and resources into this. But out of this scientific research, you’re actually seeing a lot of private ventures, coming as well.
CB: So right now we have over 20 privately funded nuclear fusion ventures worldwide. In fact, I mentioned MIT, they have a nuclear fusion company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is also spun out of, out of the, out of the research there. And the researchers of like are moving over to the private, company to continue pursuing this because they realized that at the end of the day, if you’re having to wait for government bureaucracy and continued funding and all that kind of stuff, that’s probably not gonna get you to scale as quickly as you can if, than if you’re in the market, you’re getting venture capital. And we’re seeing just an enormous amount of interest from the market in this, I think it’s around 2.8 billion dollars in investment in these kinds of projects across those 20 plus ventures I mentioned. So you’re really seeing a lot of market interests in this, and competition as it always has done throughout history, will continue driving the innovation as each company wants to be the first to commercialize and want to have, [0:18:13.6] ____ Quickly as they can. And really there is that, that market competition aspect that I think is gonna be very, very helpful to this energy, source and build upon the investments that the government has already made to the tune of around $600 million a year in R&D, but really ultimately will take private sector actors to fully commercialize this.
CF: And that’s even more private sector involvement than I thought. To help advances in fusion and traditional fission nuclear energy, you suggested policy makers streamline regulatory red tape for nuclear energy in general, create a separate regulatory track for fusion and other advanced nuclear technologies and allow continued research and development innovation. Could you break down those policy recommendations?
CB: Yeah. So the first one, which is generally streamlining the regulatory process we have for permitting nuclear plants. Like I mentioned, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the agency in charge of doing that, and after a bunch of public backlash and political pressure, they made the nuclear process really quite difficult, and that’s why they’ve only approved one particular reactor within the last three decades, and obviously, if we’re talking about bringing on board new energy infrastructure, we are talking about reducing emissions and building more clean energy than one nuclear plant every 30 years is not gonna cut it. And so we really need to modernize this process, we need to streamline it, we need to make it a lot faster, we need to make it more science-based so that it’s actually not based on irrelevant fears and unrealistic expectations based on genuine scientific understanding of nuclear safety, and we overall just need to have the NRC permit a lot more nuclear plants and a lot more quickly.
CB: So that’s kind of a big, major thing that needs to happen. Another thing that needs to happen is that right now, there is only one nuclear regulatory track. If you wanna build a nuclear plant, it doesn’t matter what type of nuclear plant it is, you have to go through the same process, but obviously nuclear energy has different technologies within it. Even within fission, you have traditional large reactors, but then you have increasingly also small modular reactors, which really represented different technological blueprint that doesn’t necessarily fall neatly under the current regulatory umbrella, and so we need to separate the different regulatory tracks and come up with a new system that allows them to be expedited in a way that is relevant to the actual technology. So for example, small modular nuclear reactors have passive safety features which large reactors don’t have.
CB: And so obviously their safety profile is very different and they don’t have to meet the same standards that these traditional large reactors have to meet, and so reflecting that in the regulatory track will allow those projects to be approved much faster and built much faster, and similarly, nuclear fusion also has a very different safety profile from these other technologies, so allowing that to have its own process to be expedited and approved very quickly when it does come time to commercialize it, I think is gonna really help the technology, because right now all that we’re doing is just holding back these technologies from innovating and from being developed.
CF: And let’s say that fusion energy does become workable, scalable. What would be some of the ramifications of that for society and for the natural environment and climate change and so forth?
CB: I mean, the nuclear fusion industry has said that it would basically have as much impact on humanity as the discovery of firewood. If all of a sudden you’re going from relatively expensive energy that is not super reliable and kind of difficult to maintain all those kinds of things, to essentially limitless clean energy, you have huge energy savings, you have abundant energy, which we know is just the basis of an advanced industrialized modern economy, you have all kinds of public health benefits. I mean fossil fuel pollution still kills thousands and thousands of people every year and has significant public health impacts, so if you take that off the table, that’s gonna be really beneficial for society and just at the end of the day, cheap energy is really what drives modern civilizations, at least economically.
CB: And so if we have nuclear fusion as a breakthrough, it’ll really, really help us to develop more quickly to use that energy to advance economies and societies to lift people out of poverty. And obviously, the side benefit there being that it will help reduce climate change and hopefully completely minimize it to the extent that some of those climate impacts will be negligible and won’t have an impact on our economies and health either. So I think there’s really only significant benefits to come from the fusion.
CF: Now you’ve also urged continued support for traditional nuclear reactors, fission, nuclear power, and building more small modular reactors so that we can, in your words, make energy reliable, affordable and clean for everyone. Could you expand on that? This all of the above approach when it comes to nuclear power?
CB: So like I mentioned, if nuclear fusion is still one decade, two decades, three decades away from being commercialized, that we still have significant energy needs in the meantime. And as we’ve seen in the last year with rising energy costs across the world, at the same time as governments really struggling to come up with the right kinds of policies to reduce emissions without unnecessarily increasing energy prices for consumers, nuclear energy has a huge role to play in that. And so while fusion is a really exciting technology that we should be putting resources into and just getting hyped about, unfortunately, it’s not here yet, and so we have to still work with the energy sources we do have right now, and nuclear energy really is one of the best ones that can have reliable, affordable and secure supply chains.
CB: And at the end of the day, if we want to start tackling climate change right now, if we want to provide clean and affordable energy right now, if we want to provide energy that’s not reliant on countries like Russia or China, and we wanna do that right now, we need to have traditional nuclear plants as well, so we should be focusing on those… Keeping those plants alive, not shutting them down early, renovating them if need be, to have the kind of necessary maintenance. But then on top of that, there’s almost an interim step between traditional nuclear and fusion nuclear, and that’s what I mentioned, small modular reactors, and those are gonna be brought online by the end of this decade, and so we need to also focus on allowing those to be accelerated. Hopefully, they can reduce the cost because they’re smaller, they’re more modular, so you can build them kinda on mass, and they can be placed in more rural areas, which can also have all kinds of other benefits, so we need to be looking at all three of those buckets not just one at the expense of the others.
CF: Now, even as there are more people today who are recognizing that it’s hard to be serious about reducing emissions and so forth, if you’re against allowing nuclear power, there are still some people, especially within parts of the environmental movement, who would prefer to approach clean energy entirely focusing on wind and solar and disregarding nuclear. So fusion obviously is not here yet. Well, what are some of issues with solar and wind, which make them less practical at a wide scale at current technological levels compared to nuclear?
CB: Yeah, it’s a great question, and there really is no good example of an advanced economy fully powering itself on wind and solar energy, and the reason for that is that obviously wind energy only works when the wind blows, and solar energy only works when the sun is shining. And neither the wind or the sun are blowing and shining 24/7, and so because of that, wind and solar have capacity factors, which means the amount of time that they can run of between 20% and 30%, as opposed to nuclear, which has upwards of 90%. And so in countries that have really invested in this or states, if you look at California, they’ve gotten to times where they don’t have enough wind and solar energy to meet the demand on the grid, and so they have to implement rolling blackouts because they just simply can’t meet the demand, or at other times, when there’s not much demand, but they have a huge supply of wind and solar, the grid gets completely overloaded and they have to pay other states to take their energy because otherwise the entire grid would just blow up.
CB: And so really, you need to have what we call a base load source of energy to back up these more alternative, less reliable sources of energy, fossil fuels has done that for most of industrialized history, but nuclear has also done that significantly over the last 50 years, especially in countries like France and Sweden, and to some extent the US as well. And really, if we want to move to a clean energy future, we can’t do it with wind and solar alone, we need some kind of reliable base load power source to back them up, so that when there is no wind that is blowing or no sun that is shining, you can still rely on a 24/7 nuclear plant to produce that clean electricity. So that’s really one of the main drawbacks of wind and solar, and now there’s two others that I’ll mention briefly, which nuclear has an advantage over them on.
CB: One is the sheer amount of physical space it takes to convert into energy. So solar panels require 400 times more space than the nuclear plant to produce the same amount of energy. Obviously, if you’re talking about putting solar panels, blanketing a bit of land with solar panels, that takes up a lot of space to produce energy. Similarly with wind turbines, they’re huge things, and you can’t just stack them all on top of each other, they kinda have to be spread out in the countryside or wherever it might be, and so that also takes up significant space. The cool thing about nuclear is it takes really a tiny plot of land to produce electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes. One nuclear plant can provide electricity for several hundred thousands of the homes on a piece of land a few acres big.
CB: And then the third thing I’ll mention about wind and solar versus nuclear is because of the sheer amount of land and resources that you need, really the material input is significantly larger than for nuclear plants. For example, for solar, you need all kinds of critical minerals, most of which get sourced from China, often un-ethically, and the problem is that we don’t know if we have enough physical material resources to provide solar and wind power to the entire world, and so nuclear provides an alternative there where it can create a ton of clean electricity with minimal material input, and so that’s just another thing that we have to consider.
CF: And now, some have pointed out, of course, that the issue of the intermittent nature of solar and wind power that you mentioned, that problem with them only producing energy some of the time. That would not be a problem if we had better energy storage technology, right? But we don’t have that at the present time. What’s going on with energy storage technology right now?
CB: Yeah. So broadly speaking, one of the solutions to the intermittency of wind and solar is that at the times where you do produce a lot of wind and solar energy, but you don’t use all of it, you can put that excess supply into batteries and store them there. Or some other way of storing energy so that you can use it at the times that there is less wind and solar. And so the idea there is that you kinda smoothing out the imbalance between supply and demand from wind and solar, and making sure that you have consistent supply around the clock. Now, the problem is that the batteries, up until now, which appear to be the most promising way of storing that kind of energy, still can only store it for just a matter of a few hours and not nearly enough to really balance out those inefficiencies. There’s times that the wind or the sun might not be blowing or shining for days or even weeks on end, so you need to be able to back up that time gap, and some of the most promising battery technologies like lithium-ion are showing significant development and innovation, but still not quite there.
CB: And one of the other problems is that lithium, for example, is a critical mineral that we are 90% reliant on China for, and if we’re fully reliant almost for this crucial piece of our energy grid for a country that is very hostile to our interests, then that’s something else to consider. So we should be diversifying those supply chains, mining and building more of them over here in the US, or either here in the US or with Allied Nations, and just not depending on countries like China for our critical energy needs. So those are really two of the problems with storage technology, specifically on the battery front. Obviously there’s other ways of meeting storage needs, whether it’s pumped-storage or other emerging technologies, but none of them have really proven to be fully capable of bridging that gap right now.
CF: I really appreciate your practical approach to these issues. What are some of the initiatives that your organization, the American Conservation Coalition, is working on that you’re excited about with regards to nuclear or energy in general in the environment?
CB: Yeah, so we have our climate platform, which is called the Climate Commitment. You can just go to theclimatecommitment.com, and it’s broken down into six different pillars, really kind of a very practical, common sense approach to tackling climate change bit using innovation and common sense rather than mandates or banning things. It’s also rooted in markets and incentives, not sacrificing energy costs to have clean energy, but showing that we can do both. The platform is very pro-nuclear, it’s pro-streamlining regulations, it’s about making it easier for American businesses and innovators to come up with these innovations and to compete with countries like China and Russia. It’s about unleashing our energy capacities and resources right here rather than artificially holding them back with regulations and laws.
CB: And really, ultimately the Climate Commitment is a climate platform that reflects the need to tackle climate change, but shows the world that we can do it in a common sensical pro-innovation, pro-American way, that doesn’t make life harder, unnecessarily for every day people. If people wanna learn more about specific energy sources or about some of these principles, we also have an online academy with courses on a variety of issues, whether it’s nuclear energy to battery storage, to carbon capture and storage, to the role of hunters in conservation, or the faith-based approach to environmental issues. There’s just all kinds of courses that we have on our Market Environmentalism Academy, and you can go to the marketacademy.eco, E-C-O, and sign up for those courses for free. We’ve already had over 6000 young people take those courses, and so you can be another person, whether you’re young or not to take a course and to learn more about whatever issue through a video, readings, quizzes, all that kind of stuff.
CF: One of the positive impacts that we might get from fusion energy, if it becomes scalable, that I’ve heard a lot of excitement about, would be that there would be enough energy then to make carbon capture technology a lot more workable. Can you describe carbon capture technology? Since you mentioned that you have a course on it on your website made me think about that. Can you describe carbon capture technology and what would be the impact if that becomes more doable, if fusion power becomes scalable?
CB: Yeah, so there are several types of carbon capture technology. Broadly speaking, the concept is that we can catch carbon emissions CO2, and store it so that it’s not contributing to climate change. Two of the primary ways are either direct air capture, so that’s pulling CO2 from the air that already is in the air and then storing it underground or doing something with it, and the second main type is capturing it when you have a fossil fuel plant instead of it being emitted into the air, when you’re producing energy, you just directly capture it at the source and then also store it or do something else with it. And the reality is that the United Nations says that there is already enough carbon in the air to impact climate change right now, and to make it happen right now, and we will realistically need to not just move to clean energy to have zero emissions going into the atmosphere, but also taking some of the emissions currently in the atmosphere back out and storing them to mitigate some of the effects of climate change.
CB: One of the problems is that carbon capture technology has been very expensive and very difficult, and it’s a not very cost-effective way of reducing emissions right now, but of course, if you have very abundant inexpensive energy in the form of fusion you can power a lot of those necessary technologies to then more cheaply take carbon out of the air and storing it underground so that we have a lesser impact on the climate. And so I think that there is a very compelling opportunity there because it also shows that even though right now we might be still reliant on fossil fuels especially in the developing world, we’re not gonna tell them, well, you can’t burn coal and natural gas anymore because it’s the only way that they can survive right now. But it does offer hope that the emissions that are being emitted now could hopefully at some point be taken back out of the air with carbon capture technology. But again, that’ll take a lot more innovation and hopefully fusion can contribute to that as well.
CF: Now this whole approach relates to the book that you edited a few years ago, Green Market Revolution. And in the conclusion to the book, you write, we often hear about the necessity for system change. The central assumption of this assertion is that the current capitalist market-based world economy is an enemy to the planet and therefore incapable of pulling us out of the mess we’re in. This book challenges that narrative. Can you tell me more about that and what you mean when you say market environmentalism?
CB: Yeah. So for a long time when we’ve talked about environmental issues, talked about climate change, the overwhelming narrative has been that capitalism and markets, like you said, are the primary cause of environmental issues and that the only way to tackle them and to create a more sustainable world is to overthrow capitalism or to use regulation and government interference because we can’t trust markets to do the right thing. And the book is essentially a rebuke of that. It looks at the history of free markets. It looks at the track record and data of market-based economies and really makes the argument ultimately that markets are best friends when it comes to coming up with the innovation and technologies necessary to stop a problem like climate change. Obviously capitalism in the form of the industrial revolution did create the carbon emissions that are now leading to climate change. But they also created the medical breakthroughs that allow us to live till 80 or 90. They create the abundant food that is lifting people out of poverty. They create the software that we’re recording this podcast on. They lifted billions of people out of poverty and that’s incredibly important and that’s something that we should applaud capitalism for.
CB: Now, obviously, if climate change is a consequence of that, then we also need to use capitalism to help tackle that problem. And at the end of the day, everything we’ve talked about here today is about technology. And we’ve shown that the greatest technological breakthroughs have not come from the Soviet Union or from Communist China or Communist Cuba or wherever, they’ve come out of the capitalist west, out of countries or markets are allowed to function where we have the profit incentive for companies to come up with innovations and commercialize them. And at the end of the day, if we want to accelerate technological breakthrough, especially within the clean energy space to tackle climate change, markets and capitalism are the only way to do that. And so the book kind of outlines the principles of how we can go about that. Two other quick things I’ll add on it is the track record of market-based economies is actually far better on environmental issues than of government-led economies. So if you look at countries where you have economic freedom and you overlay that with the environmental performance index, which is an index published by Yale University every single year, you see that actually the countries that have the most economic freedom also have the best environmental performance.
CB: It’s because in those countries, you have the resources necessary to invest in innovation. And if people that are living in a richer country no longer have to worry about where their next meal comes from or the roof above their head, they have more time and disposable income to worry about conservation in their local area, to invest in innovation that reduces air pollution or water pollution that makes the food that they eat healthier and cleaner. And so that’s really the story in every single market-based economy is that sure, as you’re progressing, as you’re industrializing, you have an impact on the environment, that’s inevitable. But once you get to a certain point, you actually start reducing your environmental footprint and you start having a cleaner economy and a cleaner society as well. And so really, at the end of the day, the evidence firmly shows that more economic freedom equals better environmental outcomes. And obviously we’ve talked about climate change in technology, this also applies very significantly to conservation. Some of the most important conservation projects in the United States, for example, the American Bison were saved by private landowners using their property rights to take care of the land or of these animals with their very clear incentives and their personal responsibility. And so where we have allowed markets to function, whether it’s for technology or for conservation outcomes they’ve really delivered.
CF: You also write summarizing market environmentalism. That market environmentalism is a concept that champions responsibility, encourages constructive voluntary interaction, raises up individuals and communities and firmly places environmental sustainability at the center of our social and economic transactions. That’s a beautiful summary. But have you seen this approach gaining ground?
CB: Yeah, that’s a tough question obviously because when you’re talking broadly speaking about a more market-based perspective, that’s not really the direction that the world has been heading in, in the last few decades really, if not longer than that. I will say that broadly speaking, there’s a conversation in the United States right now that I think exemplifies the role of markets and how governments are starting to understand that more. And that’s a conversation around permitting reform in the US. So for those of you that aren’t super familiar, right now there’s a regulatory process for major infrastructure projects in the US that really adds years and years of delays to these projects being built and millions of dollars in compliance costs for environmental studies and reviews and red tape and all that kind of stuff. And that actually disproportionately holds back clean energy projects because the market is investing more in clean energy projects than it is investing in fossil fuel projects. And so over half of these projects are clean energy projects that are being delayed versus only about 15% for fossil fuels. And so people are realizing all of a sudden that this government-imposed regulatory process is the single biggest thing holding back clean energy development in the United States.
CB: And so one of the biggest conversations happening in Washington DC right now is how can we modernize and streamline this permitting process to make it easier for the market to build the necessary infrastructure and projects to help tackle climate change? And so I think that’s one example of governments realizing that actually the barriers that they’ve imposed are very much the barriers that are actually holding back the progress that they want to see.
CF: Now, we usually try to end this podcast on a more hopeful note. So what would you say is the trend or recent occurrence that gives you the most hope regarding the future of energy and the environment?
CB: I would say that broadly speaking, since the topic of this podcast has been nuclear energy, that as the title of my article reflects in the Wall Street Journal of the nuclear power come back, more and more people are starting to take a more science-based and rational approach to these issues. Polling that we’ve released shows that nuclear energy is more and more popular amongst young people. Governments around the world are starting to embrace it again. In the US, you have enormous investment pouring into fusion as we discussed, but also into small modular reactors, and that’s kind of a similar story around the world. And so it’s very encouraging that people are starting to wake up to the fact that nuclear energy is an incredible source of energy that can meet economic goals, it can meet environmental goals, it can meet security goals, and it really has no drawbacks in terms of safety. In fact, studies show it’s the safest form of energy ever in terms of the mortality rate. And so just seeing people taking more nuance science-based approach to that is really encouraging. And so I’m hoping that we can pull back the barriers that are holding back nuclear fission and fusion in the US and other countries and allow this incredible technology to just develop as it should. So I think that’s my hopeful note when it comes to energy stuff right now.
CF: Thank you so much, Chris. This has been fascinating.