This article first appeared in the Financial Times.
When the pandemic first hit, many considered the rapid development of an effective vaccine as only a remote possibility. After all, an HIV vaccine has still not been developed. Yet today, only a year later, there is a sliver of light.
The flurry of effective Covid-19 vaccines that have emerged from clinical trials — and with other new vaccines in the pipeline to deal with new variants — means there is a real prospect that the pandemic may end soon. There is an important lesson here for how the world could tackle the next big challenge facing humanity: climate change. One of the key components of the success of the vaccine programme has been a lack of interference from politicians. True, the US government’s Warp Speed programme provided some important logistical help. Yet, in many ways, governments everywhere did the bare minimum — and we’re all the better for it.
Instead of dictating how the vaccine should immunise, how much it should cost or who should make it, politicians identified the problem that needed solving and wrote the cheques to make it happen. The rest was down to scientists. Using a similar approach would be a huge step forward in our quest to tackle climate change. Having spent over four decades in the auto industry, I’ve seen my share of well-intended political initiatives having a negative impact on the ultimate objective. Diesel is the most high-profile example. In the early 2000s, the UK provided incentives to motorists to purchase diesel cars. The reasoning was that they use less fuel than petrol vehicles, therefore they were an environmentally friendly alternative.
Less than a decade later, though, and the truth has proved very different. Diesel engines produce several times more nitrogen dioxide than petrol cars, irritating lungs and causing breathing difficulties. The crux of the diesel saga was that politicians overstepped their mark. Instead of identifying the problem, writing the cheques and leaving much of the rest to scientists and engineers — as they have done with vaccines — they fatefully dictated what they believed to be the solution.
Today, we face a similar challenge. When I worked at Nissan, the Japanese carmaker, I was responsible for the launch of the world’s first mass-market electric vehicle, the Leaf. It will therefore come as no surprise that I am a vocal advocate for electric cars and the role they can and will play in helping to achieve a healthier planet. Yet I also urge caution on policymakers who view electric vehicles as the only way towards a cleaner future — at least for transport, which accounted for a third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2019.
The UK government has done its bit by defining the problem and setting the ambitious goals of banning the sale of combustion engine cars by 2030 and a net zero emissions economy by 2050. Now, it has to encourage a competitive environment that sees engineers battle it out to discover and develop multiple technologies to reach that goal. Electric vehicles may not be the best way. Hydrogen, for example, could outperform batteries for efficiency when it comes to heavy goods vehicles and long-haul buses. Synthetic fuels may well continue to provide the drama, noise and excitement that make sports cars so special. And there will no doubt be engineers and scientists whose research will see them stumble upon the application of an environmentally friendly fuel that no one previously thought possible.
In other words, politicians must avoid putting all of their eggs into one glovebox. If there is one good thing to have come out of this pandemic, it’s the setting of a new precedent for a much healthier and fruitful relationship between politicians and scientists and engineers. Let’s not stop here.