The vaccines against COVID-19 exemplify the potential of human ingenuity. A globally collaborative research effort yielded an innovative solution to a pressing problem, developed with unprecedented speed but also remarkable efficacy.
The inspiring effort to create the vaccine has made the bumpier aspects of its rollout all the more disappointing. How could such an eagerly anticipated technology go so wrong? Well, it turns out that there’s a big gap between developing solutions and implementing them at scale.
This should raise alarm bells for anyone working on climate tech. Climate change is a very different sort of challenge than a pandemic, due to the long-term time horizon and the fact that emissions are tied to nearly every aspect of human life and economic activity. However, the early failures of the vaccine rollout can serve as an informative case study about technological fixes for complex global challenges.
Specifically, here are five lessons that the vaccine rollout can teach to startups, investors, governments and anyone else working to advance climate tech:
1. Innovation isn’t everything
The vaccine is as big a technological breakthrough as they come, but it’s still not enough to solve the problem on its own. Thwarting the virus also requires good old-fashioned physical distancing, mask wearing, testing and contact tracing to prevent spread. The vaccine is a massively powerful tool to have in the pandemic-flighting toolbelt, but it’s not a silver bullet.
For climate change mitigation, there’s nothing even remotely close to a silver bullet. It’s often said that what’s needed is silver buckshot. On their own, climate-tech breakthroughs such as direct air capture, next-generation energy storage and green hydrogen will not address climate change in time or at scale. They need to operate in conjunction with established and immediately available solutions such as energy efficiency and deployment of wind and solar.
2. Don’t sleep on logistics
The messenger RNA vaccines being delivered were developed in record time, but even well-resourced countries have run into all sorts of roadblocks at the last mile. Vaccines have gone bad in the freezer, while at the same time vulnerable populations have struggled to navigate byzantine sign-up processes and then waited in long lines once they did. This goes to show that inventing a solution and delivering a solution are two very different challenges, and both are critically important to address.
Similarly, climate-tech breakthroughs need to reach millions or even billions of people in a relatively short time frame. This transition won’t unfold as quickly as the vaccine rollout, but it needs to be fast as far as technology change is concerned. At a certain point, the logistics will become the main bottleneck. Supply chains, project siting, installation, finance — none of these things are a given. They require careful coordination and planning, and it helps to think through those processes as early as possible.
3. Policy matters
In the U.S., the federal government provided little guidance about vaccine distribution, especially in the last days of the Trump administration. Instead, the White House left states to fend for themselves, spurring inconsistency of approaches and confusion. Even with new Centers for Disease Control guidelines and an administration that prioritizes COVID response, the process has remained a confounding patchwork.
When it comes to complex challenges such as COVID-19 or climate change, central governments have a critical role to play in setting targets, creating incentives and designing actionable standards. There’s no substitute for this kind of central leadership. For climate tech, this could come from policies such as a national greenhouse gas reduction targets, a price on carbon and electric vehicle standards.
4. Equity is essential (but thorny)
Despite warnings of "catastrophic moral failure" from the World Health Organization, vaccine distribution has been far from equitable. In the U.S., wealthy and white communities have been disproportionately vaccinated, and Western countries have hoarded vaccine doses from the rest of the world. Many of these disparities build on decades or even centuries of systemic racism and colonialism. In allowing the global threat to persist, these inequities hurt everyone, but the consequences are most dire for the most vulnerable people.
Equity is also critical for climate tech. Solutions need to rapidly mitigate climate change, which hits hardest in marginalized communities, and they need to do so in a way that does not exacerbate existing inequality.
A particularly murky aspect of all this is that, as with vaccine delivery, there are tradeoffs between acting as fast as possible and acting as fairly as possible. Urgency is no excuse to ignore injustice but may create some difficult decisions further down the road.
To make a rough parallel, it’s hard to argue that wealthy drivers are more deserving of electric vehicles, but it’s unlikely that a mass-market company such as General Motors would be clamoring to go all-electric by 2035 if Tesla hadn’t paved the way with luxury cars.
5. Misinformation runs rampant
Even with thousands dying per day in the U.S., many continue to deny the pandemic is a problem. There’s also doubt about the solutions, including widespread distrust of the vaccine, despite evidence of its safety and necessity.
Similarly, climate change denial continues amid worsening climate impacts, and climate action has long been opposed with misinformation campaigns. Just look at how Texas politicians immediately tried to turn renewable energy into a scapegoat for recent power outages, in a state largely powered by fossil fuels. Crafting a clear and compelling message, and doing so with a commitment to honesty, will be critical for long-term adoption of climate technologies.
The upshot of the vaccine rollout is that despite all the snags and snafus, the U.S. is vaccinating about 1.75 million people per day, and that rate is expected to increase. The summer could bring some sort of return to normalcy. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Sadly, that’s not the case with climate change. The path ahead is long, and it’s mostly uphill. However, the challenge is surmountable if we’re able to step up and meet it, as Bill Gates and others keep reminding us. Technology can work wonders, but only when it’s wielded with foresight and with care.