About 15 years ago, travelling along an eight-lane highway in Alabama surrounded by SUVs and trucks, I thought: we aren’t going to stop climate change. At least back then the problem was mostly an American one. Now huge cars have gone global. SUVs last year accounted for a record 46 per cent of the world’s car sales, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). If we’re serious about keeping the planet liveable, we have to regulate and tax huge cars out of existence.
Let’s not turn this issue into anything so boring as a culture war. If you feel an automated rant coming on about metropolitan elites persecuting ordinary folk, remember that huge cars are mostly driven by the rich. In the UK, for instance, the average SUV costs more than the median full-time pre-tax salary of about £33,000 — leaving aside petrol. Generally, it’s the rich who emit most CO₂. Getting rid of huge cars is about reducing emissions first and road accidents second.
SUVs evolved from the second world war jeep, but their worldwide numbers have jumped nearly sevenfold since 2010, to about 330 million. (This includes “crossovers”, car-like platforms on to which larger, SUV bodies are grafted.) Given that SUVs consume one-fifth more oil than medium-sized cars, they now emit about three times more carbon than the UK, per the IEA, which also says that they “have helped keep transport emissions rising “at an annual average rate of nearly 1.7 per cent from 1990 to 2021, faster than any other end-use sector”. Passenger vehicles already account for about 9 per cent of all global emissions. And every day, more people on Earth can afford to buy a car.
Petrol-fuelled SUVs still massively outsell the supposed big new things on the roads, electric vehicles. Even electric SUVs won’t do much to prevent dangerous climate change because they require outsized batteries, given their bulk and relative inefficiency. And manufacturing a car battery consumes as much energy as making the e-car itself.
The second strike against SUVs is that they are killing people now. They are particularly lethal in their land of birth, the US, where pedestrian deaths rose between 2010 and 2018. Meanwhile, deaths fell almost everywhere in Europe, where SUVs remain much less prevalent. This demolishes the argument that the big new danger is texting while driving. Because of SUVs’ weight and drivers’ limited visibility from inside, they protect their occupants while endangering everyone else, most tragically children run over in driveways by unsighted parents. SUVs induce a kind of arms race: when other cars are huge, people in small cars feel unsafe and decide to bulk up, too. Road accidents are a growing danger as populations age because elderly pedestrians have a bigger risk of being killed.
In short, we need to legislate away huge cars such as the Ford F-series truck, the US’s bestselling passenger vehicle for 41 years running. After all, we ban other dangerous substances, and sometimes even not very dangerous substances, such as marijuana. We already regulate cars themselves in all sorts of ways. Jurisdictions from California to France have scheduled the end of sales of new internal-combustion-engine cars, while cities like London bar dirty cars from certain zones. In the US, efficiency regulations apply to the range of vehicles sold by a manufacturer. But why not limit the size and emissions of individual car models? Some European countries already tax big cars, but in a climate crisis we need more radical action.
It’s true that regulating away huge cars would be a restriction on freedom. Many people want huge cars. Psychologically, an SUV is a second home. But eliminating these civilian tanks wouldn’t exactly be green authoritarianism. Even with smaller cars, people could still drive wherever they wanted, as quickly as before. SUVs hardly qualify as a necessity compared with two other big emitters, planes and cows. If we banned planes, which account for only about a quarter of the emissions of passenger vehicles, longer-distance travel would practically cease. Banning cows will become a serious option once we can deliver large quantities of cheap, nutritious plant-based milk and fake beef, but we aren’t there yet.
If huge cars disappeared, the biggest losers wouldn’t be drivers but carmakers. Some of them have probably been kept alive by the outsized profits from SUVs. But then, the automobile industry is being forced to reinvent itself anyway by the advent of electronic vehicles. If we let SUVs keep fouling the planet, we might as well admit there’s no sacrifice we’re willing to make for the climate.
Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at [email protected]
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