Western hypocrisy over India's Nano ignores global need for fewer cars

Western alarm over auto ownership in India ignores global need for fewer cars.

The jokes about the Nano, Tata Motors’ new affordable car for the Indian middle class, were harmless, although very old. They told the same jokes about the Fiat 500 and the Citroí«n 2CV in the 1950s, when mass car ownership first came to Europe. “How do you double the value of a Nano?” “Fill the tank.” “How many engineers does it take to make a Nano?” “Two: one to fold and one to apply the glue.” But the hypocrisy wasn’t funny at all.

The typical story in the western media began by marvelling that Tata has managed to build a car that will sell for only 100,000 rupees (about $2,500). Everybody agrees that it’s “cute”, and it will take five people provided they don’t all inhale at the same time. It has no radio, no air conditioning, and only one big windshield wiper, but such economies mean that it really is within reach of tens of millions of Indians who could only afford a scooter up to now. And that is where the hypocrisy kicks in.

What will become of us when all those Indians start driving around in cars? There’s more than a billion of them, and the world just can’t take any more emissions. It’s not the “People’s Car”, as Tata bills it, but rather the “People’s Polluter”, moaned the National Post. “A few dozen million new cars pumping out pollution in a state of semi-permanent gridlock is hardly what the Kyoto Protocol had in mind.”

But hang on a minute. Aren’t there more than a dozen million cars in Canada already, even though it only has one-thirtieth of India’s population? Aren’t they on average twice the size of the Nano (or, in the case of the larger SUVs, five times the size)? Does the phrase double standard come to mind?

“India’s vehicles spewed 219 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2005,” fretted the Guardian in London. “Experts say that figure will jump almost seven-fold to 1,470 million tonnes by 2035 if car travel remains unchecked.” And the Washington Post wrote: “If millions of Indians and Chinese get to have their own cars, the planet is doomed. Suddenly, the cute little Nano starts to look a lot less winning.” But practically every family in the United States and Britain already has its own car (or two).

Don’t they realize how ugly it sounds? Don’t they understand that everybody on the planet has an equal right to own a car if they can afford it? If the total number of people who can afford cars exceeds the number of cars that the planet can tolerate, then we will just have to work out a rationing system that everybody finds fair, or live with the consequences of exceeding the limits.

Contraction and convergence is the phrase they need to learn. It was coined almost 20 years ago by South African–raised activist Aubrey Meyer, founder of the Global Commons Institute, and it is still the only plausible way that we might get global agreement on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

The notion is simply that we must agree on a figure for total global emissions that cannot be exceeded, rather as we set fishing quotas in order to preserve fish stocks. Then we divide that amount by six-and-a-half billion (the total population of the planet), and that gives us the per-capita emission limit for everyone on Earth.

Of course, some people (in the developed countries, mostly) are currently emitting 10 or 20 times as much as other people (mainly in the developing countries), but eventually that will have to stop. The big emitters will gradually have to “contract” their per-capita emissions, while the poor countries may continue to grow theirs until at an agreed date some decades in the future the two groups “converge” at the same level of per-capita emissions. And that level, by prior agreement, will be low enough that global emissions remain below the danger point.

If you don’t like that idea, then you can go with the alternative: a free-for-all world in which everybody moves toward the level of per-capita emissions that now prevails in the developed countries. No negotiations or treaties required; it will happen of its own accord. So will runaway climate change, with average global temperatures as much as six degrees Celsius higher by the end of the century. That means a future of famine, war, and mass death.

Clucking disapprovingly about mass car ownership in India or China misses the point entirely. At the moment, there are only 11 private cars for every thousand Indians. There are 477 cars for every thousand Americans. By mid-century, there will have to be the same number of cars per thousand people for both Indians and Americans—and that number will have to be a lot lower than 477, unless somebody comes up with cars that emit no greenhouse gases at all. Otherwise, everybody loses.




Jan 18, 2008 at 12:07pm

I think that the contraction -convergence argument is extremely valid keeping in mind the present state of affairs. India might be a very densely populated country but $2,500 is still not an affordable price of a car for majority of Indians where the per capita income is still $550 and 27 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. There might be a remarkable boom in the purchase of the nano tata cars but it won't be anywhere close to outstripping the western emissions. The price of petrol is considerably high and would act as an incentive against buying a car. And in any case, doesn't the capitalist principle go as everyone who can afford can buy? Why should developing countries be an exception to this rule then? I am not trying to advocate mass purchase of cars but developed countries do need to realize that we need to cut back on 'our' consumption and emissions first and then set ideal standards for the rest of the world. If we take pride in calling ourselves developed then we also need to get over our western ego and meet the responsibilities.