There are lots of jokes about the Nano, the new affordable car for the Indian middle class, but the hypocrisy of the Western media isn’t funny at all.
Reports begin by marvelling that it will sell for only 100,000 rupees (about $2,500). Everybody agrees it’s “cute” and will take five people, provided they don’t all inhale at the same time.
The vehicle, made by Tata Motors, 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’s where the hypocrisy kicks in.
What will become of us when all those Indians start driving around in cars? the argument goes. There are over 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 Canada’s 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-30th 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 its size)? Does the phrase “double standard” come to mind?
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 U.S. already has a car (or two).
Don’t commentators realize how ugly this all 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 have the money for a car exceeds the number of cars 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 limit.
“Contraction and convergence” is the phrase we need to learn. It was coined almost 20 years ago by South Africa-born activist Aubrey Meyer, founder of the Global Commons Institute, and it is still the only plausible way 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, just as we set fishing quotas in order to preserve fish stocks. Then we divide that amount by 6.5 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 others (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 so 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 prevailing in the developed countries. No negotiations or treaties required: it will happen of its own accord. So will runaway climate change, with its 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 in both India and North America, 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.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.