climate change consumerism transport

Where did all the SUVs come from?

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.


  1. The Conversation also picked up on this article, and went on to suggest how to deal with the legacy of vehicles that typically last up to 20 years: convert them to electric.
    Given how simple and flexible electric drive is compared with internal combustion, I think this could be surprisingly feasible. And perhaps their existing bulk, and weight, and even their urban usage patterns might help make conversion even easier than other vehicle types..

  2. Perhaps it’s nicer to step up into a car rather than shove yourself down. The idea that we are slaves to advertising is not only faintly insulting, it is also plain wrong. If you identify the wrong cause yoyr solutions will be wrong too.

    1. I agree, it’s wrong and insulting to say we’re slaves to advertising. It’s entirely correct to say that our choices are influenced by ads. It would be wrong and insulting to the advertising industry to say they have not been effective on SUVs.

      1. Sure they advertise so you choose their SUV, but where is your evidence that consumers are choosing SUVs over regular cars because of advertising, rather than them being a better product?

          1. Yes, but it can’t persuade you to do something you really don’t want to. You ascribe too much power to advertising. Perhaps it’s a useful excuse when you fail to persuade people to your point of view that ‘The other side had better advertising’ ather than consider the strength of you proposition.

            Ford spent plenty on advertising the Mondeo. But Qashqais and Sportages are better suited to modern family usage so the consumer buys them. Advertising influences whether they buy the Qashqai or the Sportage but not the choice of SUV over old style fairly cars.

            1. I’m dubious about the strength of your own proposition. To me it seems you didn’t properly appreciate the article’s original arguments. The ads don’t feature examples showing the greater utility in the typical urban settings where most are purchased and used. They show things like adventure in the great outdoors. And so much advertising does very similar things, seeking associations with images or emotions only tenuously connected with the actual utility of the product. We should be careful not to assume a notion of ‘rational economic man’ which is increasingly discredited.

          2. The report is evidence free. Lots of assertions, a bit of correlation but no actual evidence that SUVs are popular only because of advertising, which is the thesis of the report.

            It doesn’t consider any alternative explanations. Like SUVs are more comfortable and practical than family saloons and better looking than minivans and MPVs. Which they are. It’s much more comfortable to climb into an SUV than shove yourself down into a saloon car. Being higher up gives the driver and passengers a better view and the upright sitting position allows greater leg room for the same length of car. The higher roof gives greater boot capacity for a car of its length. Being shorter than an estate makes them easier to park. I could go on and on.

            But no the only possible explanation is that their buyers are easily influenced and not rational. Not like you of course, you are rational but those other folks aren’t.

            If this report had an actual survey if SUV buyers as to why they bought the car then it might have some more credibility. Otherwise it comes over as the search for an excuse as to why the public didnt listen to environmentalists who have been compkaining about these vehicles for decades.

            As I said. Advertising works when you choose between things you already want. It can’t sell, and certainly can’t keep on selling, things you don’t want. Sportage vs Qashqai, not SUV vs saloon.

  3. You sound like an SUV salesman Devonchap, but I find your case very unconvincing. You’ve named all the positives, which I’m aware of, and none of the downsides. This is exactly what the adverts do – a billion pounds a year spent on the positives, and no money spent on the pollution, congestion, emissions, greater expense, difficulty parking (compared to a small family car, not an estate) or greater risk to pedestrians.

    Besides, if SUVs are so obviously superior, why are they only becoming popular now? Why were saloons ever popular, given that the Ford Model T had an elevated driving position and a higher roof. Perhaps all car buyers were irrational until the last decade?

    I don’t think car buyers are idiots. But neither are the car companies, who know which cars in their range make the most money. Neither are the advertisers who they hire, and who test the messaging that potential buyers respond to – something the report summarises very well.

    Advertising isn’t the only factor involved in car choice, and I don’t think the report says that it is. Personal preferences, practical considerations and aesthetic choices are all involved, as you say. The price of oil is a big factor in car trends and the size of vehicles. So is the availability of finance, and the tax regime on both cars and fuel. This, however, is a report on the role of advertising, and what this post is about.

    That’s really all I have to say on the matter, so if you’re looking for an argument about what the report says or doesn’t say, you’ll have to go and ask the New Weather Institute themselves.

    1. These cars are not alternatives to small family cars. Their buyers are comparing them to a Mondeo, not a Fiesta.

      Except expense your negatives are not negatives the customer suffers. So they don’t come into their buying decisions.

      As to why these were not popular before, until the 1990s the technology was Not up to making popular family SUVs. Being taller they have a higher centre of gravity and so were less stable. Older SUVs were famous for body roll in corners which isn’t comfortable. Suzuki Vitaras were infamous for overturning. Tall cars failed the famous ‘moose test.’ With its long straight roads this was never a big problem in the US but in Europe it limited the market dramatically. This is why traditional saloon cars are low, the lower certer of gravity makes them naturally more stable. As cars git faster they got lower. Only once active suspensions that controlled body roll became cheap enough to install in family price SUVs did the reputation of being uncomfortable and dangerous go away.

      When you don’t know the details it’s all too easy to come up with simplistic and wrong explanations. Few Greens or anti capitalists are motor enthusiasts and it shows here.

      1. “until the 90s” you say – so why is it only in the last decade that SUVs have become popular?

        Being sceptical of SUVs is a different issue to being a ‘motor enthusiast’, by the way.

  4. Late 1990s for the technology and these things take time to filter down to a lower price cars. Qashqai launched 2006.

    Perhaps being sceptical of SUVs doesn’t prevent you being a motor enthusiast but it’s a shame nether you or the authors of this report know very much about cars yet decide to be so emphatic about them and why people buy them.

      1. You won’t do it if you don’t understand the issues. This is a case of getting the wrong answer from misdiagnosed the problem because they didn’t take the time to understand it, just got on their hobby horse that advertising is evil. Then others who are equally ignorant if the specifics just promote it uncritically.

        This is why I’m so sceptical of the solutions you promote here. When you know in any depth about a particular issue one of these campaigns goes on about you see the campaigners answer is well off, which suggests that given the similarity in answers that all these different campaigners come to, that they are all likely to be wrong.

        Detail rather than fashionable ideas matters.

    1. SUVs are the thing the public want. They are popular but not fashionable. Too many high status people hate them for them to be fashionable. Its the idea they only want them because of advertising that is fashionable, and wrong.

      The authors of this report show no concern for what people want. They think they know what is best for public but the fact that, as here, they make no real effort to understand the them just shows they don’t. If you want real change, not just top down rules enforced by a disconnected elite, then you have to put the hard work into listening with humility to the public.

  5. And yet, the places with the highest penetration of SUVs are three of the richest Boroughs of London? I’m really not convinced that I’m the one who is jumping to conclusions.

    1. And? The Chelsea Tractor has been a thing for decades. But your problem is the wider popularity they have now. That stat you quote is a transparent attempt to inject some class envy into this carnival of obvious left wing received wisdom. It will convince no one who doesn’t already agree.

  6. Yes, and you don’t do it by misidentifying the causes of the problem because you are stuck in left wing received wisdom. Advertising bans haven’t worked when they have been tried for other things. Why should they work here? No evidence is given.

    So it’s a report written by people who don’t seem to understand the history of SUVs, or the motivation of those who buy them or the efficacy of their proposed solutions. Yet you just promote it uncritically.

    Do you actually want to solve the problem or just stick to your political priors and gain plaudits from the like minded? That is much easier than thinking outside your ideological box.

    1. You’re very exercised about this for some reason. Nobody’s coming to take away your Qashqai and ‘shove’ you into a Mondeo. But in all your comments I haven’t seen one useful contribution to the actual question, which is how we reduce emissions from road transport.

      Since petrol and diesel SUVs are one of the main reasons why transport emissions haven’t shifted, something has to be done about it. Over to you for something constructive.

      1. Moving to electric SUVs seems to be the better solution. Being larger they have greater space for batteries.

        I haven’t seen one useful contribution to the question of reducing emissions in this report or your responses to me here.

        The Climate Assembly proposed a ban on SUVs so I assume you will denounce them as “nobody is coming to take away your Qashqai”.

        1. I’ve written about electric cars many times. Fully in support. I think we could accelerate that change by not advertising petrol and diesel SUVs.

          Any ban on SUVs that I would support would be on sales of new ones, not confiscating them from existing drivers.

          1. Shame there is no evidence that advertising bans work then. As with SUVs people don’t buy petrol/diesel cars because they are advertised more than electric.

            You seem to have a faith in the power of advertising it just doesn’t have in reality, I guess because you associate it with consumerism which you don’t like and can’t quite understand why other do. I just don’t think you should be imposing your faith on others when there is no evidence for it.

          2. Did people see the article on this in The Conversation? It seems relevant here. Even ‘outlawing tomorrow’ wouldn’t remove the legacy of all existing SUVs.
            The Conversation picked up on the New Weather Institute article, and went on to suggest how to deal with the legacy of vehicles that typically last up to 20 years: convert them to electric.
            Given how simple and flexible electric drive is compared with internal combustion, I think this could be surprisingly feasible. And perhaps their existing bulk, and weight, and even their urban usage patterns might help make conversion even easier than other vehicle types..

          3. They know they they influence people between products, not to doing something totally against what they want. But letting you think they are really powerful is good for business, even if experienced clients know the score.

            But if advertising is about conning people into believing lies then it’s the people who dislike advertising because they think it’s all powerful who have fallen for the lies of advertisers. That includes the authors of this report. Few are as credulous as those who want to believe.

            1. Yep, the word I used was ‘influence’, not controlling people or lying to them. You’re arguing against a more extreme position than I actually take, which is what you usually do.

              I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that it’s unhelpful to spend a billion pounds a year advertising something that makes our carbon targets impossible. But we’re not going to see eye to eye on that.

  7. however both new electric SUVs and retrofit kits would have a substantial carbon footprint. And indeed all other cars do too.So really I feel we should be discussing urgently about how to move away from personal ownersip of vehicles, to people-friendly provision of transport. A hard but very necessary move. I’m sure Jeremy has covered this in various ways over the years.

    1. Yes, and there’s a further complication in cars being exported to Asia and Africa when they leave UK roads, with no global reduction in emissions. So active and public transport remain the highest priorities.

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