Co-operation needed on road to the future
So-called 'people's cars' such as America's Model T Ford, Germany's Volkswagen Beetle and Britain's Mini put the masses of the developed world on wheels. The modern relaunches of the Beetle and the Mini met with warm responses, not least for their small environmental footprints. So did that of Italy's Fiat 500, which replaced the scooter for post-war millions.
There is no reason why yesterday's launch of the affordable People's Car, as it is named, for the teeming millions of India's emerging middle class should be regarded any differently. Normally, environmentalists who detest fuel-thirsty four-wheel vehicles and luxury cars would welcome it.
But they have found a reason not to, even if the developed world is historically and still primarily responsible for it. That is the contribution of the motor car to the global warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions, and the global threat of climate change.
They worry that a car so cheap - US$2,500 - could lead to Indian drivers clogging their already stressed roads, aggravating serious pollution and increasing the country's dependence on oil imports.
But the newly prosperous people of emerging economies should have the same expectations and right to drive cars as people in mature economies.
This is the global climate change debate on wheels. Developing nations led by China and India argue that it is unfair to expect them to join developed countries in adopting targets for cuts in industrial greenhouse gas emissions. They have valid fears it would slow their development and inhibit the improvement in living standards of their huge populations - more than one-third of the world total.
As these countries grow, their middle classes - countless millions - will enter the income bracket that will put them in the market for cars, especially a new breed of very affordable models. They may be expected to react as enthusiastically as Americans did when Henry Ford's Model T swept the United States. This prospect fuels an environmental nightmare - a global explosion of cheap cars and climate-changing emissions.
The concerns are understandable. India's Tata group is eyeing other emerging markets for its new People's Car. Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda and Fiat are also planning to build low-cost cars. The Nissan Motor Renault alliance is developing a cheap car with Tata rival, Bajaj Auto.
Tata says the concerns are exaggerated. It claims the People's Car will meet emissions standards and points out that it would account for a very small percentage of the number of cars entering the roads.
In any case, the right kind of approach is to be found in the agreement reached at last month's United Nations climate summit, under which developed nations are to be encouraged to transfer environmentally friendly technology to developing nations to help them consume energy more efficiently. This should be extended to the development of affordable cleaner-car technology, such as hybrid petrol-battery-powered engines. Leading carmakers have already forged business partnerships with the automotive industry in the developing world.
The People's Car is a sign of things to come. Given that India and China must continue on high-growth paths to meet the legitimate aspirations of their people for higher living standards, scientific and technological co-operation offers the best hope of combating global warming.