One of the banal hazards of my life is the traffic of the school run. The school is on a side street that was probably perfectly adequate for generations, but is now regularly choked with queueing cars. One of the reasons it gets blocked is that cars are so huge. It’s almost surreal, seeing these dinky humans tumbling out of these enormous vehicles.
As I’ve reported before, Britain’s carbon emissions have fallen dramatically in the power sector, and hardly moved in a decade in the transport sector.
One of the main reasons for this is SUVs. As they have become more popular, the emissions from the average car on Britain’s roads has risen – at a time when all climate and pollution targets ought to be leading us in the opposite direction. This is seriously impeding progress on sustainable transport. One electric car is sold for every 37 SUVs, so the enduring popularity of out-sized petrol cars is eating any gains from electrification.
In a new report, Mind Games on Wheels, the New Weather Institute and Possible investigate the rise of the SUV. “How did we end up in this situation, where global climate change goals are in jeopardy because so many ordinary households are being persuaded to buy two tonne trucks to drive the kids to school on crowded city streets?”
And we are talking about city streets, by the way. Analysis of UK sales figures shows that three quarters of new SUVs are registered at urban addresses. The areas with the highest proportion of large SUVs on the roads are three of the wealthiest London boroughs, where one in three cars is vastly outsized.
The report suggests that the biggest reason for the rise of SUVs is advertising. Few purchasers needed a car that big. The demand did not arise, ex nihilo, from drivers. They are profitable vehicles for the car industry, and they have been aggressively marketed to encourage higher sales. Adverts, which never feature SUVs queueing on the school run of course, depict wilderness settings that appeal to people’s longing for nature and adventure. They show people ‘dominating’ the landscape, commanders of their own urban defence vehicles. And they play on our protective instincts towards our children, marketing SUVs as safe family cars and therefore the responsible choice for a parent.
If advertising is a central reason for SUVs popularity – and the billion pounds spent on car advertising in the UK annually suggests it is – then perhaps advertising is a good place to begin to curb demand. The report recommends a ban on adverts for the most polluting SUVs, and reforms to the Advertising Standards Authority so that it is harder to market carbon intensive products and activities. In the meantime, they call on advertising companies to stop taking the work.
This is a global problem. SUV sales continue to soar in the US, Australia, China. After power, SUVs are the second biggest cause of rising emissions – a larger contribution than aviation or industry. So it’s no exaggeration to say that we will not properly address climate change without asking some serious questions about the desire for big cars.