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Tiny car, big threat

The $2,500 Nano will put millions more Indians on the road. Is there a silver lining in that pollution cloud?

January 18, 2008

There's a good reason why chief U.N. climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, who shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, says he's "having nightmares" about India's newest automotive innovation. It's not because the Nano from Tata Motors, which was introduced last week, makes the boxiest hatchbacks from the '70s look sexy. It's not because the car lacks air conditioning in a country where the heat can be paralyzing, nor because its 2-cylinder engine can barely manage 60 mph. It's because the vehicle's tiny price tag -- about $2,500 -- will make car ownership possible for millions of Indians, which could well render the rest of the world's efforts to combat global warming moot.

Currently, only about 12 in 1,000 Indians have a car, according to the United Nations. In the United States, the ratio is 765 cars for every 1,000 people. What happens if, through a combination of its incredibly rapid economic growth and innovations like the Nano, India's car-ownership ratio hits that of the U.S.? That would put 864 million cars on India's roads, more than 3 1/2 times the number in the U.S. It wouldn't happen for several decades, if ever, but the same phenomenon is occurring in China, which has an even bigger population. The International Energy Agency estimates that the number of cars in China will increase sevenfold, to 270 million, by 2030. That's a scary prospect. Light-duty vehicles account for about 10% of global carbon emissions, and that number is going to rise quickly as more Indians and Chinese get behind the wheel.

Indians, of course, have every right to enjoy the newfound freedom and status that comes with owning a car. There is nothing the world's environmental community can or should do to interfere with the rollout of the Nano. Yet it does point up the urgency of developing technological alternatives to the internal combustion engine and the burning of fossil fuels.

If there's a silver lining in the Nano cloud, it's that the free market could help solve the emissions problem. Prices for gasoline will probably keep rising as millions of cheap cars hit Asian roads. That will spur research into alternatives and discourage people worldwide from buying low-mileage cars. It's even possible that gas prices in India might rise to the point that those who could afford a Nano wouldn't be able to afford the gas to fuel it.

American automakers should take heed. Judging from the models being unveiled at this week's Detroit Auto Show, consumers can expect more of the same gas-guzzling vehicles in showrooms this year and next. Detroit isn't entirely to blame because it takes years to produce new models, and soaring gas prices are a relatively recent phenomenon. But carmakers considering their future lineups would do well to phase out the Navigators for something more Nano-sized.

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