This article was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of Canada's National Observer's collaboration with Climate Desk.
They are the hulking cars that have conquered the world. Spreading from the heartlands of the US to a new generation of eager buyers in China to dominate even the twisting, narrow streets of Europe, the sports utility vehicle, or SUV, has bludgeoned its way to automobile supremacy with a heady mix of convenience and marketing muscle.
The rise of the SUV as the world’s pre-eminent car has been so rapid that the consequences of this new status – the altered patterns of urban life, air quality, pedestrian safety, where to park the things – are still coming into focus.
But it’s increasingly clear that SUVs’ most profound impact is playing out within the climate crisis, where their surging popularity is producing a vast new source of planet-cooking emissions.
Last year, the International Energy Agency made a finding that stunned even its own researchers. SUVs were the second largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade, eclipsing all shipping, aviation, heavy industry and even trucks, usually the only vehicles to loom larger than them on the road.
Each year, SUVs belch out 700 megatonnes of CO2, about the entire output of the UK and Netherlands combined. If all SUV drivers banded together to form their own country, it would rank as the seventh largest emitter in the world.
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Climate activists may hurl themselves in the path of new oil pipelines and ladle enough guilt on to flying that flygskam, or “flight shame”, has spread from Sweden around the world but a mammoth, and growing, cause of the climate crisis has crept up almost unnoticed around us.
“The global rise of SUVs is challenging efforts to reduce emissions,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, admitted.
SUVs raced to a new milestone in 2019, surpassing 40% of all car sales worldwide for the first time. The world’s roads, parking lots and garages now contain more than 200m SUVs, eight times the number from a decade ago. SUVs’ share of car sales in the UK has tripled over the past 10 years, in Germany last year one in three cars sold was an SUV.
Combining the weight of an adult rhinoceros and the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, SUVs require more energy to move around than smaller cars and therefore emit more CO2, overshadowing the car industry’s climate gains from fuel efficiency improvements and the nascent electric vehicle market.
‘They created a market that pushes our buttons’
Emissions analysis commissioned by the Guardian illustrate, for the first time in detail, how much worse for the climate SUVs are than smaller vehicles, and how they have helped transform our cities.
In the US, SUVs emit 14% more carbon dioxide than small passenger cars on average, a wider disparity than in the European Union but smaller than China.
These differences add up to a hefty toll in emissions – all of the SUVs sold in the US just in 2018 will in a single year emit 3.5m tonnes more in CO2 than if they were smaller cars. Over a 15-year lifetime of the vehicles, the extra pollution is on a par with the entire annual emissions of Norway.
Over a 15-year lifespan, the SUVs sold in the US in 2018 will emit 429.5m tonnes of CO2. In China, the emissions will amount to 482m tonnes of CO2, while in the EU the vehicles will expel 129m tonnes of CO2. Combined, these emissions will be three times higher than what the UK emits from all sources in a single year.
“To avert the worst of the climate catastrophe, the transport sector needs to be completely decarbonized,” said Sebastian Castellanos, a researcher at the New Urban Mobility Alliance who calculated the emissions. “With the explosion in SUV sales, we are moving even farther away from our goal of decarbonizing the sector.”
This global phenomenon has its roots and impetus in the US, where in the 1980s the car industry carved out a new category called the “sport-utility vehicle”, a sort of mash-up between a truck, a minivan and the traditional American family car. After successfully lobbying lawmakers to class these vehicles as light trucks rather than cars, binding SUVs to less stringent fuel efficiency standards, the industry set about slotting them into almost every arena of American life.
Once a workhorse that lugged tools around or was used for bumpy off-road driving, the SUV morphed into the default option for families puttering around suburbia and even for people in the cores of densely populated cities. The look and cost of SUVs stretched to suit all tastes – the 1984 Jeep Cherokee, a boxy, spartan offering considered the first SUV, has spawned successors ranging from the compact Kia Sportage to the sporty Mercedes ML.
The industry found that American drivers enjoy the lofty seating position of SUVs, as well as the capacity and the comforting feel of security their bulk provides, even if half of all journeys taken in the US are mundane trips of under three miles to run errands rather than high-octane adventures in the Rocky Mountains. For many Americans, SUVs invoke alluring qualities of fortitude and independence.
“Pretty much everyone wants one now,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. “The family car is now a utility vehicle and not a sedan. Millennials like them, baby boomers like them. Americans like to take all of their stuff with them and automakers figured this out.”
Marketing for SUVs is now so broad it no longer seems jarring to see ads of a beefy car-truck zooming around urban streets to take its occupant to a yoga class or to grab a coffee. Ford was so thrilled with its recent relaunch of the Bronco, a model infamous for being driven by OJ Simpson as he was chased by a phalanx of police cars in 1994, that it rolled out an eight-part podcast series in celebration.
“Car companies looked at things that people value, such as macho-ness, ruggedness and protection of the family, and leveraged that,” said Harvey Miller, professor and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University. “These SUVs are named after mountains and other places you’ll never go to. They created a market that pushes our buttons.”
As Bloomberg’s Nat Bullard noted in a recent tweet: “We don’t buy cars here. We buy big cars built on truck bodies, and we buy trucks and drive them like cars.” The US is now indisputably an SUV nation, a transformation that has had profound consequences for American cities as well as the global climate.
The SUV city
This new reality is a logical endpoint to a century of lobbying and cajoling by the car industry to turn American city streets from raucous communal areas shared by pedestrians, market stands and early vehicles to mega-highways that slice disproportionately through communities of colour; where jaywalking is a punishable act and where so much space is required for the 95% of the time our cars sit idle that Los Angeles, for example, devotes an area larger than the land mass of Manhattan just for parking.
To Miller, SUVs are a monument to a broader American failure that has seen pedestrians and cyclists forsaken for endless miles of road building, with non-car users forced to push what he calls “beg buttons” to pause traffic to enter roads that should be egalitarian public spaces.
SUVs, according to Miller, not only bring a stew of pollution and an element of fear to those attempting to traverse roads on foot or bike, they are fundamentally inefficient. “You are taking a 200lb package, a human, and wrapping it in a 6,000lb shipping container,” he said. “For some reason we think that is a good way to move through a city. If Amazon used that rationale it would be out of business in a week.”
Alarm has also been raised over the safety of SUVs, given that during accidents their elevated stature tends to strike pedestrians and cyclists on the upper torso and then crushes them under the wheels. “They are killing machines,” said Miller. “They cause a lot of damage to the global climate, to air quality and to the people they hit. SUVs are terrible for cities and neighborhoods, they serve no purpose there. You don’t need them to run to the store to buy a gallon of milk.”
Taming SUV emissions will largely come down to fuel efficiency improvements and a significant shift to electric versions. Firms including Nissan, General Motors and, of course, Tesla have started to roll out electric SUVs, nudging the driving range up to 300 miles without a charge. But the challenge is steep – today, only about one in every 100 vehicles sold in the US is electric, recharging stations are still sparse and the price of oil – and therefore gasoline at the pump – has recently plummeted to record lows.
A deeper-rooted reform would involve a reimagining of US towns and cities as places largely without cars, a previously unthinkable scenario before the pandemic emptied streets and saw outdoor diners, skateboarders and strolling couples take their place on the reclaimed tarmac. The crisis of 2020 has given Americans a glimpse of a different sort of urban life, one more readily associated with Amsterdam or Venice, although there is little sign the clamor for SUVs is weakening.
“Most Americans can’t imagine anything else other than highways and crappy public transit. It’s all they’ve ever seen,” said Miller. “Now that SUVs are here they are difficult to unwind but if we want sustainable, healthy cities we have to do it.”
Europe, with its more embedded culture of walking, cycling and public transport, is now staging something of a backlash against the SUV, with protests held in Germany over the vehicles’ climate impact and calls in the UK, home of the “Chelsea tractor” insult, for a tobacco-style ban on advertising SUVs because they spew out huge volumes of air pollutants that lodge harmful particles in the lungs and can even lead to brain damage.
Not so in America, where the era of the SUV is far from threatened. IHS Markit forecasts SUVs will make up half of all US car sales this year for the first time, strengthening further to 54% of sales by 2025. General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Ford are increasingly now SUV, rather than car, makers.
“The dominance of SUVs is only going to stretch,” said Brinley. “We will just see them as the norm.”
Sources and citations
There's too many
There's too many generalizations here. I switched from a Grand Caravan to a CR-V, so am now included in that SUV owner category. But my fuel consumption has gone down from 10.5 to 7.5 L/100Km.
Pioneer F.W. Lanchester,
Pioneer F.W. Lanchester, described as the best brain ever wasted on the motor car, set a driver's eyes level with a standing person. People don't even like getting in and out of a low seat. However, it has been shown that SUVs take more room on the road as well as vertically, because, unable to see over them, car drivers follow less closely.
The SUV appeals to a very primitive instinct, to be prepared to gather the family and run away, but it is used, as the article notes, as a 6000 pound container for a 200 lb person. This is safer than a 3000 pound container, all else being equal, causing an "arms race" situation on the roads. As ever, most of the money spent on vehicles is about image and identity, not practicality. I drive reliable, economical, unfashionable cars for $200 pa in parts and depreciation.
So, what to do? Reverse those clever tax breaks, and start a high tax on excess capacity. There is no good reason for any land vehicle to weigh more than it carries; we have just been sold as much as we will buy, and gotten used to it. Making it electric is another exercise in overselling.
An electric velomobile is all most commuters need, and it even provides convenient exercise en route, and exercise of real benefit, for motivation. It can fit through a standard door for security and convenience, and stand on its tail to park. Small, nimble, and built like a full-body helmet, it should average safer than a SUV as well.
Even if SUVs — or all
Even if SUVs — or all vehicles — were converted to electricity (there is a big global push in the works for just that … Alberta be forewarned), they would remain highly problematic from a geometric perspective. Emissions are only one edge of a double-edged car dependency sword.
Private vehicles take up real estate, too much of it public land consumed by over-engineered roads. It was calculated in the 90s that 30% of all Vancouver's urban land was devoted to the public road network. That's 40 square kilometres of taxpayer-supported land in an area with some of the most expensive land on the continent. Note that Vancouver has now run out of greenfield land; the only way to create more land is to fill in English Bay. Therein, urban efficacy — using existing developed land more efficiently — is now paramount.
The Vancouver suburbs sprawl farther because land is cheaper, but there are still constraints, like protected agricultural land and incompatible geography at the periphery. The asphalt penalty there rises to about 45% of the urban area (~350 km2 in the Metro). It was designed that way. Is it not a huge penalty for already overburdened taxpayers to bear to underpin the private vehicle almost exclusively? The figure grows even more when private driveways and garages are counted, essentially converting high-utility land to low value dead storage space for cars, and thus declaring war on family budgets already straining with multiple car ownership and increasing the record-breaking household debt burden even more. From a community planning perspective in a highly constrained urban area, this level of car dependency is staggeringly wasteful.
It has been said that purchasing a car is one of the best ways to lose money. You never get a return on the investment based on the vehicle’s value. Obviously, the sense of personal freedom car owners treasure cannot be sustained without subsidies. In fact, it never was. The same subsidies apply to roads. They have great utility for commercial and transit vehicles, but private cars comprise 70% of the entire traffic volume on average, the majority operating with one occupant. Yet the demand for massive government-funded freeways and road expansion is seemingly unlimited. Surely there is a 21st Century capacity limit somewhere on the road ahead for this distinctly last century paradigm, be it urban land scarcity or pandemic recovery funding analysis to determine the best value for money invested.
Car dependency also imposes a huge cost on society with respect to tragedy and healthcare and litigation costs resulting from crashes, emissions-related environmental remediation from climate impacts and particulate pollution, road runoff into salmonid streams, public financing of maintenance and replacement and so forth. The researchers for the original Metro Vancouver Livable Regions Strategic Plan did the math and found that this public subsidy rang in at about $2,700 per driver per year in 1995 dollars. It is no doubt much higher today.
Rather than harping on the emissions profile of SUVs while governments at all levels continue to subsidize them, some cities chose to act independently and liberated road space for human beings. Paris converted many of its riverbank roads to pedestrian and bike space, and already has a huge network of narrow pedestrian friendly streets. Copenhagen slowly appropriated 100,000 square metres of land previously consigned to roads and parking lots and created the popular six km long pedestrian street network called the Stroget. London utilized the congestion charge zone to constrain traffic in the core and fund an expansion of the red bus fleet, and also closed hundreds of half-roads in favour of pedestrian space. The metro systems and connected tram and bus services in these cities are more vital to their success than ever.
Vancouver is continuing to expand its bike road network with permanent infrastructure. It also saw a remarkable drop in traffic to the downtown peninsula and overall GHGs largely through higher densities, an expanded transit network, zoning for multiple use areas and fostering more mid-range development on the arterials where sidewalk-oriented retail and continuous high street commercial development thrive and provide opportunities to reinforce walkable neighbourhoods. In 2019 over half of all commuter trips in the city were made on transit, bike or on foot.
SUVs should be taxed by weight irrespective of their fuel, based on both urban and climate impacts. Graduated grants for electric vehicles should be provided with larger grants for lighter, smaller vehicles, and less (or no) funding for larger vehicles, vital commercial vehicles excepted. But most of the senior government post-pandemic recovery funding should be devoted to the human scale in our cities, namely for a serious expansion of frequent transit networks (conditional on appropriate municipal zoning and urban design initiatives near transit) and conservation efforts in buildings.
The success of the post-pandemic recovery will be based as much on the wise dissemination of public funds into sustainable initiatives as much as it will be on good science.