Go green or smoke screen?

BY Anand Bala| IN Media Practice | 12/02/2009
Is it logical to have the leader in one of the most polluting industries in the world as a sponsor for an environmental campaign?
ANAND BALA has a problem with NDTV’s choice of a partner for its green initative.

The choice of Toyota as a sponsor for the NDTV Greenathon, was conspicuous. The automobile industry in not the cleanest of industries when it comes to the environment and Toyota produces a lot of diesel fumes in India.

Before I get into that, I would like to congratulate NDTV on roping in such a large number of celebrities for such a noble cause. I hope that some these celebrities decide to give up on their SUVs and settle for less polluting modes of transport (even if it has four wheels). NDTV has kindled something positive. Thank you.

I am sure when the pundits at NDTV debated the choice of Toyota and it must have crossed their minds that it does not make logical sense to have the leader in one of the most polluting industries in the world as a sponsor to an environmental campaign. They must have come across reasons(s) above and over the sponsorship fee. I am hoping they will be able to share those reasons at some stage. I am not too sure if this was a CSR initiative of NDTV. If it was I think it raises a few questions.

Fact: Toyota is the world¿s largest auto maker.

News reports in late December and early January indicate that Toyota is the world¿s largest automobile producer with over 8.9 million units produced in 2008. The silver lining is that this was a dip of about 4% compared to the same period last year. These figures (other than the decline) cannot have a positive impact on the environment. Let us do some math with this number of 8.9 million units. If we were to get very conservative with this number (assume all these cars are small cars, they all run on petrol, they all clock less than 10,000 KM a year and they sold only 8 million cars) – we would need to plant 96 million trees a year to offset the carbon emissions! (This is a global figure)

Fact: Toyota sells/has sold a lot of diesel engines in India.

Japan (the home country of Toyota) has a ban on diesel cars in some urban centres. This is in an effort to reduce rising pollution levels. Some Indian cities have made attempts to ban diesel cars but this has not yet happened.

There are over 160,000 Innova vehicles on the road. The vast majority of which (to my understanding) run on Diesel. Let us assume that they have sold 100,000 diesel cars, each clocking up approximately 15,000KM/year (conservative again as many Innova vehicles are taxis). We would need about 1.7 million trees to offset the carbon footprint of the Diesel Innovas! This excludes the Qualis (now out of production) and petrol variants of the Innova. If Toyota wants to make a profit out of India they should (at the very least) plant about 5 million trees a year to offset emissions from all their models and past sales.

Pundits will argue with me on the assumptions that I have used to arrive at these numbers. In my defense, these numbers are about as conservative as you can get and if we were to sit down and make these calculations the number of trees required would be much higher than 5 million in India and 96 million globally for Toyota. I have been very generous is selecting the footprint calculators on the net and have discounted some of the results as well.

I believe that Toyota chose to sponsor NDTV because it felt it was a great Corporate Social Responsibility vehicle. Toyota, like any other company that has ever been in India, has the right to advertise and engage with the media. The onus of taking a position and choosing the right company as a sponsor should be with the media. Will NDTV be willing to run a researched piece on the number of trees required to offset the total number of cars that Toyota has produced over the years?

Toyota has a green image. That image however has more to do with environmental norms for cars in Japan than with anything else. Their hybrid models are available in certain countries and hopefully will make an entry into India someday soon.  If they were truly green – they would have phased out diesel engines on their cars. Unfortunately, hybrids are still polluting. The electricity that we use for these cars still needs to come from a thermal power plant or hydro-electric plant (read as large dam). Both these have an environmental cost. The question about cars is not about how clean they can get, but about how we can take them off the roads and substitute them with mass public transport.

Toyota is trying to be green. Good for them. They need to be told that they are doing what is expected of them (the bare minimum). Anybody who produces millions of vehicles should not be cast as an environmental champion, particularly by the media.

To end, let me give a rather extreme analogy. Dow Chemicals has a lot of CSR initiatives. But the Indian media would hesitate to engage with them because they manufacture hazardous chemicals and companies under their control have a disastrous environmental track record (especially in India). Should they be considered "green company"?

I would venture to say that cars are a big issue when it comes to pollution and we need to be careful when we paint their manufacturers as champions of the environmental cause.

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