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Tata Nano Revolution (Part I): environmental mitigation in an unequal world

Normally, environmentalists would praise a major automaker’s introduction of a 50 MPG car.

But when India’s Tata unveiled the Nano, green advocates’ reaction was almost the opposite. For instance, Nobel Prize winner Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the innovation gave him nightmares. The same Sierra Club activists who praised Ford for a 29 miles per gallon hybrid Escape find it hard to stomach the idea of millions of people in India and the rest of the developing world driving brand-new Nanos in a couple years.

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Why? Well, that’s a complex question. But basically when we imagine climate change mitigation, most of us preserve as much status quo as we can to help our policy ideas seem plausible. But the assumptions that we make are based on the deeply unequal world we've inherited.

While US emissions per capita are lower than oil-rich Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, there's a dramatic difference when compared to poorer countries such as India and China. But India and China host one third of the world’s population, while the US represents less than 5%. China recently passed the US in aggregate emissions. If you look at it per capita, China’s rate represents only a quarter and India’s only one tenth of US emissions. But for the Earth and its limited capacity to handle more greenhouse gases, it is startling evidence that the next round beyond Kyoto better include these major emitters in a more meaningful way.

What should a climate activist do about it? My belief is that people in the US and developed world who care about the environment, public health and peace must take our “common but differentiated” climate responsibility seriously by rapidly getting our per capita house in order.

I had the pleasure of visiting China last year and India back in 2000 (yes, I bought offsets). We have a great deal to learn from them on lowering our emissions. And we can teach our neighbors as well – by sharing experience in products such as LED lights, solar, and wind. Maybe the Nano helps mark a new two-way globalization rather than old-school cultural exportation from the West.

Instead of getting scared of Nanos that increase miniscule per capita emissions, we can work hard to achieve a 50 mpg fleet average in the US, Europe and Japan -- incorporating some of Nano’s design. As the price of oil rises, rolling windows down and bicycle sharing like the Parisians is a better way to lose a couple pounds than a fad diet.

I’m optimistic the Nano can be a step in the right direction. But we have to question our unequal assumptions and foster a little social change to make it so.

Part II will discuss what the Nano might do to an already tight global oil market…

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Of course we should question what will happen once the new Tata Nano is delivered to the millions in India. Why shouldn't the population be allowed to own a car if they wish? However, if we wish to reduce the effects of motor vehicles on the planet then all those in the west should ensure that they share their transport with others; not using them alone on the commute to work, etc. All new vehicles introduced world wide for private use (including company cars) should be capable of at least 40 miles to the gallon. This of course would mean the end of the American motor industry as we know it; the end of SUV’s and other large passenger vehicles.

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