Yesterday my family popped into Harpenden for lunch and some school uniform shopping. Sitting outside a tapas bar, I was struck by how many cars in the street were Sports Utility Vehicles. I presume this is because Harpenden is wealthier and people can afford to buy and run larger vehicles, but it definitely felt worse than where we are in Luton. Every other car seemed to be a vast gas-guzzling BMW or Audi. As if to highlight the difference, we were repeatedly passed by a bright red Nissan Leaf as well, which is electric and appeared to be lost.
Harpenden is not alone in having a serious problem with oversized cars. It’s an international trend. In Europe, a third of new cars are now SUVs. In the United States it is close to half, just over 40% in China.
This is a fashion with global consequences. Since SUVs need a quarter more fuel than normal cars, the growth of SUVs has meant that average fuel efficiency has not improved in the last decade. SUVs are eating any gains made by the switch to electric cars, and prolonging our dependence on oil for transport.
Overall, drivers in Britain are travelling fewer miles in their cars, and yet emissions from transport are not falling. Bigger cars are part of that problem, and a major challenge to the country’s carbon targets, as well as traffic congestion, road safety and air pollution.
I suspect cheap oil prices are partly responsible for the popularity of big cars. They are also profitable for the car companies, since car finance is easy to get these days and the sticker price of a new car is less of an obstacle than it used to be. And so they are aggressively promoted, despite the harm they cause.
Badvertising is a new campaign from Possible and the New Weather Institute. They’re calling the advertising industry to account for promoting high carbon activities, and they have started with SUVs. There is a petition to ban SUV advertising, a sensible and specific place to start.
“We ended tobacco advertising when we understood the threat from smoking to public health” says Andrew Simms from the New Weather Institute. “Now that we know the human health and climate damage done by car pollution, it’s time to stop adverts making the problem worse. In a pandemic-prone world people need clean air and more space on town and city streets.”
There is more that could be done to curb the growth of SUVs, including taxation, or banning them from city centres. But advertising is what makes them desirable and drives sales. So click on over and sign that petition.