OPINION: The More Hybrid Drivers the Better?

Honda Insight"Theoretically, it seats 6.75 billion," the ad for the new Honda Insight hybrid car states.

My first thought when encountering this ad in TIME magazine was that it plays to a pretty narrow demographic: people who know that this big number is the current population of the world. Then I read the ad copy.

Honda's ad evokes one thought that ought to dominate the discussion at the international climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December: Global development is inequitable. Some of us worry about the mileage our car gets. But most people don't own, drive, or ride in any car, let alone a hybrid.

On the one hand, Honda is playing to a sense of fairness that its American audience may have. "Sure," the typical magazine reader might think. "Everyone should drive a hybrid. Good for Honda." Yet even a fuel-efficient hybrid car could be disastrous for the planet.

"The more hybrid drivers, the better," the ad declares unambiguously. "For all of us."

Really?

If 6.75 billion people drive vehicles that get 42 miles per gallon 10,000 miles a year, what happens to oil supplies and energy prices? To roads and open space? More importantly, what happens to the atmosphere? Honda might be more responsible spreading the message that those who feel they must drive should downshift to a more efficient model, maybe an Insight.

It's a bit like cigarettes. Low-tar filtered cigarettes probably beat unfiltered Lucky Strikes for one's health, but even cigarette-maker Altria wouldn't advertise that "the more smokers of low-tar filtered cigarettes the better."

This is hardly to say that the world's billion or so low-income people shouldn't drive. They have every right to do so, and as far and as often as anyone else. The point is that all car driving needs to converge on levels sustainable for the Earth's climate - and as soon as possible. Divided among all the world's people, this amounts to very little driving - in any vehicle - until car manufacture, operation, and disposal entail at most miniscule greenhouse emissions.

The global impasse that has stymied real action on climate change is fundamentally the confusion of countries with people in sharing the burden. Countries aren't conscious beings. They're political entities, accidents of the history of boundary-making. People, by contrast, experience life and in doing so inevitably produce varying levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Every human being, whether in the United States or China or Nigeria, has the same right to emit greenhouse gases as the most profligate of us do. And Americans emit many times more on average than Chinese or Nigerians do. That's why it's up to the profligate emitters - Americans among them - to cut their emissions first and to finance any emissions cuts they expect from low-emitters in other countries.

The Honda ad is a reminder of what high-emitting countries are learning too slowly: that effective global action on climate change requires convergence on very low per capita greenhouse gas emissions - or at least economics that accommodates the discrepancies. Until this basic principle of fairness is recognized and embraced by wealthy countries, progress on climate change will be incremental, in Copenhagen and beyond. And that won't be enough to save the planet, to quote Honda, "for all of us."

Robert Engelman is Vice President for Programs at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.