Quebec has the lowest emissions per capita in Canada, but one environmental group says the climate gains the province is making are threatened by an SUV habit it just can’t quit.

The number of gasoline-powered SUVs, pickups and vans increased by 306 per cent between 1990 and 2018. In 2020, 80 per cent of new vehicles sold fell under those categories. Those vehicles are responsible for massive amounts of planet-warming greenhouse gases: the International Energy Agency found that carbon dioxide emissions from SUVs are nearing one billion tonnes worldwide.

At the same time, most Quebec drivers don’t make use of the space in their SUVs, according to a study conducted by research institute CIRANO on behalf of the non-profit Équiterre. The study is part of an ongoing campaign called “No SUV for Me,” which the group has worked on since 2021.

The group’s campaign digs into the environmental harm stemming from SUVs, along with pickup trucks, vans and crossover utility vehicles. It notes there is no one clear definition of what a light truck is, and they focused the messaging of the campaign around SUVs because they’re widely known by the public and symbolize the issue in a comprehensive way.

Four years in, Équiterre’s executive director Colleen Thorpe says the message is starting to get through to people in Quebec.

Équiterre's campaign focuses on the environmental impacts of SUVs and other light-duty trucks, as well as the safety issues stemming from the vehicles. Image courtesy of Équiterre

Following their advertising campaign — which included TV advertisements, online ads and a tool comparing the environmental, safety and other impacts of SUVs to other cars — they surveyed approximately 1,000 people in June to gauge the impacts of the campaign so far. They found 215 respondents had seen the campaign, and 70 per cent said the ads helped them understand the environmental impacts of the vehicles. Approximately the same number of people said they think there needs to be regulations around advertising for light-duty vehicles, including SUVs.

Quebec has the lowest emissions per capita in Canada, but one environmental group says the climate gains the province is making are threatened by an SUV habit it just can’t quit.

“People who are exposed to the campaign and the messages of our campaign have more positive responses to policy changes to stop the trend: policy action against SUVs and bigger cars. So that's a really positive thing,” said Thorpe.

Electric SUVs

While Équiterre wants people to question buying a gas-powered SUV, the non-profit said it is also advocating for smaller EVs. Just as gas-powered SUVs continue to climb in popularity, so do electric models.

“For the first time ever, electric SUVs last year accounted for over half of global electric car sales. Over 400 electric car models were available on the global market in 2022, of which around 55 per cent were SUVs; up from around 40 per cent four years ago,” notes the International Energy Agency.

In Canada, the federal government has promised to stop the sale of new gas vehicles by 2035, but Thorpe warns SUVs bought before then will be driven for years after and, importantly, that electric SUVs can still be bad for the environment.

“We started this work early on because we saw the trend happening. And we saw, specifically, that we had the potential to make great gains with electrification,” said Thorpe.

“But those gains can only be gains if we have certain conditions. If our vehicles are becoming bigger and using up more resources and more electricity to charge them, then we're just back to square one.”

While EVs are undoubtedly better for the climate than cars that run on fossil fuels, minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel are needed to produce batteries for the vehicles. Mining has environmental and social consequences. Notably, the Ring of Fire in Ontario, which is home to a 5,000-square-kilometre mineral deposit, has been the subject of hot debate among First Nations in the area, some of which say the massive project will negatively impact rivers and peatlands.

In a standard battery for a smaller EV, about 170 kilograms of those raw minerals is required, while batteries for electric SUVs require up to 75 per cent more of those minerals, note Laura Lander and Grazia Todeschini, both researchers at King's College London.

A blueprint

While Équiterre’s SUV campaign is ongoing, Thorpe hopes it can be replicated in other areas. Instead of people purchasing SUVs as a default, she hopes awareness can spread and investment in public transportation can increase.

While Thorpe notes it’s a difficult conversation and the group has received backlash, she thinks they’ve laid some important groundwork and opened up a dialogue on SUVs, convincing some people that they shouldn’t be the default.

“In French, you say, ‘You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ Did we break a few eggs? Maybe. But are we going to make a good omelette in the end? I think so.”

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The central issue is overall car dependency. This was made possible by widespread public acceptance of cars and building our cities around them over four generations. The only way to address this 70-year old problem is to redesign our cities and intercity transportation, a tall order by any measure.

Everything else is a sub issue that will not, on their own, correct the problem. EVs have helped lower emissions and break owners from oil dependency, but they don't negate the need for massive, unsustainable road infrastructure. SUVs became common through imagery, marketing and lobbying over fuel regs. The mythology about big houses with big lawns in the monoculture of big distant subdivisions was built on raising big Brady Bunch families, which no longer dominate our demographics.

The set of physical solutions for all that is electrification, huge investments in urban and intercity rail transit and a concurrent redesign of zoning policy to foster walkable communities with mixed uses and housing that meets today's demograhics of smaller families that are offered multiple adfordable housing choices in each neighbourhood to accommodate aging in place.

The preference for SUVs diminishes when walking to work, to a choice of stores, and to recreation centres displaces sitting behind the wheel, and when parking a big vehicle becomes problematic and expensive. That circumstance naturally shifts to all vehicles and puts into question the cost of car ownership.

SUVs are allowed by policy design and by consumer preference. A policy that taxes by weight, that removes free parking from all public roads, that gives high road space priority to transit and that puts transit at the top of public funding for transportation will have a dramatic and very positive effect all around.

Car owners who vote will not like that, and therein is the core issue, especially when politicians with the spines of shrimps cater to them.

Auto manufacturers are a "big" part of the problem. They're not making the small electric vehicles for the North American market. It's much more profitable to make the bigger vehicles. People like to talk about Europe as this car less mecca. They have cars but they're considerably smaller.

Some if that is true, but cities like London and Paris have fabulous metro systems with supporting trams and buses on the surface. And both cities are highly walkable, even more so since they've taken steps to remove or limit cars in the centre. Note that inner city Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are already walkable. Cars are still an issue, but that's because they evolved in the age of streetcars.

But the marketing for cars is very evolved too, to the point where five of my eight neighbours have multiple vehicles, more than half of which are not necessary because we live within a reasonable walk of hundreds of stores. One couple next door owns the biggest legal SUV VW makes so he can carry his gym bag. Seriously! His work commute does not require such a huge urban assault vehicle. And his unemployed wife owns a Volvo station wagon in which she is a single occupant 29 days out of 30. The couple on the other side of us also own two cars though they've been retired for almost 10 years.

I used to own a full sized GM hippie van back in the 80s and eventually got fed up driving a tank. We now own a small subcompact which sits on the street 90+% of the time because we much prefer to shop and visit friends at nearby cafes on foot. And we can fit three or four of the neighbour's gym bags in the back.

When addressing EVs and batteries, it is very important to keep up to date with the rapidly changing technology.

The use of nickel and cobalt in batteries are quickly giving way in real time in EVs to the more stable and long lasting iron and phosphate. Sodium and silicon batteries, including in hybrid chemistries with other materials and exemplary cold weather performance, are coming down the pipe well before 2030.

It's all quite revolutionary and easily translates across to grid storage too. Five minutes with Google will offer many links to bring a researcher or journalist up to speed.

Can't agree more with both of these comments!! First, "the spines of shrimps" is right up there with Singh's reference to dealing with the Liberals being like "wrestling slimy eels"! Next, it's past time to include the research on using graphene for batteries. It MUST be pushed to the forefront of cheap, readily available material that is sustainable for the environment.

Maybe "shrinking violets" would be a tamer term. ;-)

Matt Ferrel's 'Undecided' did a fascinating bit of research on graphene. It's super promising, but still kinda stuck in the lab in some forms. I really like the possibilities in construction and in high voltage electrical cables which we will need a lot of.

This article seems to imply that owning an SUV is a status thing. What about real world utility? I am a happy SUV owner that keeps it parked most of the time, but there are many situations where having a larger vehicle is really helpful. Just because I don’t take advantage of its size all the time doesn’t mean it isn’t genuinely useful to me. We rationalized the decision for a larger vehicle with the fact that we have been committed to being a single car household.

If we paid the true cost of car ownership, our cities would look much different. SUVs got away with less pollution control than other cars and arguably do more damage and are more dangerous to pedestrians and other drivers. The weight of high end monsters is often more than an EV, putting to bed the idiotic anti-EV idea that EVs will collapse parkades and bridges and wear out tires faster.

But yes, carmakers are not making enough smaller EVs ... for now. China is nor exporting some really interesting and well-made and affordable smaller EVs to the West, so that will be resolved through imports, if not by North American manufacturers. Still, cars are cars and they are a millstone around the necks of urbanists and municipal finance departments.

Free parking on public streets has been terrible for the public budgets that must maintain an ocean and a half of asphalt devoted to dead storage space, a "need" that is given near absolute priority as long as tax revenues cover it with voter's acquiescence. Permit parking and road pricing are fair safety valves that would put the burden of road maintenance costs onto drivers; car-free homeowners in the city centres (that would be 40% of downtown Vancouver residents) that pay property taxes should get a generous tax rebate. Commercial vehicles excepted. In addition, cars and SUVs take up a lot of public real estate to the point where 45% of the land in our cities is paved. That is an egregiously poor land use planning practice from 60 years ago.

But the doozy is the calculation of the life cycle subsidies that underpin car dependency. These costs would include not just road and bridge maintenance, but the valuation of vast areas of land and the related long distant underground utilities devoted to them. You also have the cost of emergency services and the healthcare system response to traffic-related air pollution and accidents which regularly fill up taxpayer funded hospital emergency departments, various long term therapy clinics and morgues. Paramedics do not carry credit card readers forcing accident victims to tap their Visa before they pick them off the road surface. Then there are court costs when litigating over vehicular injuries and deaths.

Walkable communities are not only far better for elevating the quality of life for residents, but for decreasing the impact of cars and their public subsidies. They also function with maximum efficacy and are quieter -- and often more beautiful.