Social justice not a nano problem

venkat-narayananVenkat Narayanan

You may have heard about the latest car sensation in India – the nano. The advent of this car has seen debate rage all over the world and more specifically from various lobby groups. The debate centres on what naysayers believe was an irresponsible act on behalf of Tata Motors. The release of a car that many argue (costing around AUD $3000) would dramatically increase the number of cars on the already congested  roads of India . While there are several sides to this debate; I’ll take the sustainability angle particularly focusing on the issues from an environmental and social justice perspective.

Many people, living in developed countries have argued that the release of this new car will result in greater carbon emissions. While there is no doubt this is true, one must  question; just how much developed countries are doing to reduce their own carbon emissions?  It is generally accepted that most countries, both developed and developing have over the last 10-15 years had a net increase in carbon emissions. So the argument of increased emissions cannot be afforded to anyone, whether they are from a developed or developing state. In comparison,  2005 saw the US responsible for 1577 million metric tonnes of CO2 (5.3 metric tonnes per capita) while India was responsible for 383 million metric tonnes (0.35 metric tonnes per capita) (source: U.S. Department of Energy).

The second argument regards the social justice aspect of this issue. Is it appropriate for developed countries to snub the right/pleasure/status, etc, associated with car ownership of those in developing countries? This is especially the case when cars in developed countries are far larger, far less fuel efficient and often only carry a single passenger. The nano is by comparison a relatively small emitter of CO2. The suggestion here is not that everyone should jump into a nano, or that cars (powered by carbon emitting fuels) are the best way forward for transport. Rather that this bears out a more fundamental issue facing global sustainability. Should developing countries have the right to commit similar levels of environmental degradation as developed countries?  If so, do they then have the right to enjoy the increased standard of living as enjoyed by developed countries?  

The answer to this question is not easy and involves the most difficult of notions – compromise. So who is to compromise? And what is to be negotiated? Should developing countries agree to reduce their levels of environmental degradation for economic assistance, if so who is to fund this economic assistance? Developed countries? Or is there a future that does not require environmental degradation for wealth creation? These are some very important questions that may or may not be address at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year.

The Earth’s resources are limited. Consumption of these resources by one person effectively and sometimes permanently reduces the availability of these resources for other/future persons. The developed world has “developed” on the back of the Earth’s natural resources, now the question is – to what extent should the developing world have the right to do the same and can the world afford it?

There is no doubt the developing world has to be part of the solution to this, the greatest challenge facing all living species.  For the issues involved in this process are not just issues of environmental sustainability but also of social justice.