The auto world was abuzz this week as Indian carmaker Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, a four-door, pint-sized sedan that will soon go on sale in India. Beyond its diminutive stature and no-frills interior, the Nano is turning heads because of its price: 100,000 rupees or a mere $2,500 USD. Sales projections still vary wildly, but many analysts agree that the hyper-affordable Nano could bring car ownership – and its social prestige – to a vast swath of rapidly developing India.
There is, naturally, a downside to this otherwise feel-good story. Despite weighing only 600 kilograms and sporting a tiny 624cc engine, the Nano is still a conventionally fueled car. And although Tata Motors has outfitted it with a catalytic converter and boasts 50 mpg efficiency, this eco-friendly profile may be vastly outweighed by the millions of new drivers it may put on the roads. Environmentalists are still struggling to calculate the effect this development will have on greenhouse gas emissions (and global energy supplies), but the picture doesn’t look good so far: “This car promises to be an environmental disaster of substantial proportions,” said Yale’s Daniel Esty.
The Nano debate is only a tiny facet of a much larger and fairly acrimonious controversy over the tension between emissions reductions and environmental stewardship on one hand and the right to develop and attain first-world standards of living on the other. In the environmental community, some scientists and public intellectuals advocate strict planet-wide reductions, including regulations that mandate significant cuts on the part of developing nations and punitive measures such as carbon taxes and other sectoral norms. International development and human rights workers oppose this view, arguing that inflexible emissions cuts risk keeping nations perpetually in “developing” mode.
How can we resolve this impasse? Is it even resolvable? Environmental advocates make a point that is difficult to refute: if we are truly worried about climate change and its impacts, then we should take any action necessary to reduce our emissions – even if it means economic burden on already burdened states. Nor is it fair that some nations’ hard work can be undone by the developing world: one estimate says that the reductions made by every Kyoto country will be nullified by China by year 2010.
If the environmentalists’ arguments are hard to reject, so too are those of the development advocates. After all, who wants to be the person to tell an upwardly mobile family in India, or China, or Cambodia that they cannot enjoy the same benefits of their income that a Western family can? Vishal Bhatia, an Indian commenter on the Nano dispute, summed up why he wants one: “I’m buying it because it gives a sense of freedom.”
Today, this dispute leans somewhat in favor of the UN’s George Kell, who said, “You can’t deny emerging markets the right to the same living standards as OECD countries.” This definition of the “good life” and upward mobility is based in the experience and priorities of Western economies. Is there a bridge that offers synergy between individual desires and public needs or corporate desires and environmental consequences?