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Global middle class: More money, more pollution?

As the developing world becomes more middle class, will traditional frugality trump the pollution that goes along with more consumption?

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As a greater percentage of global citizens approach the living standards enjoyed by the West, the need to find innovative ways to balance growth with natural resources is increasingly urgent. Developing nations' demand for energy is expected to grow 70 percent by 2030, according to ExxonMobil's Outlook for Energy 2011.

The number of cars in Rio de Janeiro grew 40 percent in the past decade, and China recently surpassed the United States as the world's largest car market.

Air travel has been growing by double digits in India, and air cargo is likely to expand because of rising demand for middle-class products like fashion clothing and medical equipment, says John D. Kasarda, coauthor of "Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next."

But there's also a tradition of frugality that could mitigate the rush on natural resources. In India, for example, recycling newspapers means selling them to another customer.

"At this point in time, the cultural influence of recycling, getting things repaired, saving electricity because it will save money remains strong," says Indian environmentalist Chandra Bhusan. While people are becoming more wasteful, he says, the West's example provides a strong reminder.

"We have to learn from the failures of others," he says. "The Western world failed to solve its mobility challenge.… We have to provide state-of-the-art public mobility."

Close to 40 percent of the Delhi government budget this year has gone toward public transportation – bike lanes, a rapid-transit bus system, and subway expansion.

And innovative technology could help the whole world become more environmentally friendly. China is already a leader in wind power and is designing battery-powered cars, while nearly one-third of India's primary energy comes from renewable sources.

"These countries have demonstrated a tremendous amount of innovation to serve the needs of these middle classes," says Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution in Washington.


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