I’ll admit to having never been a big fan of SUVs. It’s fine if you’re one of a tiny handful of people who actually need a 4×4 in your trade, but there seems little reason for regular folk to be driving around in these hulking great gas guzzlers on the commute or school run. And, as the piece below explores, the climate is paying an especially heavy price for this, at the very moment we’re supposed to be slashing emissions across all sectors globally. This was the theme for my second piece for the Business Post, which appeared in early August.
AMID ALL the recent brouhaha about electric cars, hybrids and fuel efficiency, you could be forgiven for thinking the global transport sector was among the shining stars of the new low-carbon economy.
Looks can, however, be deceiving. Behind the hype, one ugly fact emerges: vehicular emissions are in fact spiralling globally, and the chief culprit is the sports utility vehicle, or SUV.
Since 2010, booming demand for SUVs worldwide has seen their market share more than double, to 39%. According to analysis by the International Energy Agency, fast-growing demand for SUVs in this period was the second largest contributor to increases in global greenhouse gas emissions.
This was borne out by the European Environment Agency’s report on CO2 emissions from cars and vans for 2019, which noted that average emissions for new cars in Europe have risen for the last three straight years.
All the motor industry’s gains in fuel efficiency over the last two decades have been wiped out by the rise of larger, heavier SUVs, which now contribute over 700 million tonnes of emissions a year. Put in context, this is almost as much as the pollution from the entire global aviation industry. Were SUV drivers a country, they would be the seventh most polluting nation on Earth.
A report published by UK think tank, the New Weather Institute last month called for a ban on all media advertising of larger and more polluting SUVs, arguing that this was essential in order for Britain to meet its international climate obligations. The report noted that some 150,000 SUVs sold in the UK in 2019 were more than 4.8 metres long, meaning they don’t fit into a standard parking bay.
Using the analogy of banning tobacco advertising, the Institute’s report argued that while ‘SUVs are marketed as providing protection for drivers, their physical size, weight and pollution levels create a more dangerous and toxic urban environment for both drivers and pedestrians’.
Arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, pressure is growing around the world, including Ireland, to limit vehicular access to city centres to make more room both for pedestrians and for restaurants, cafés etc. to use outdoor seating areas. Logically, the larger the vehicle, the less suitable it is for our typically narrow city centre streets, which were built long before the advent of two-and-a-half tonne Range Rovers.
Apart from congestion, heavy traffic brings air pollution into densely populated areas. As a measure to tackle severe pollution, mainly from diesel engines, central London has introduced Ultra Low Emissions Zones(ULEZs). While electric vehicles are exempt, most cars, motorcycles and vans are charged £12.50 to enter an ULEZ.
The dangers don’t end with pollution. A study published in the US in June found that while 54 per cent of pedestrians struck by a car travelling at 64km/hr or more died, the mortality rate rose to 100 per cent for those struck by SUVs at similar speeds. The high fronts and rears on typical SUVs mean reduced visibility for drivers. This also leads to a greater risk of small children in particular being crushed in car parks and driveways.
In physics, momentum is calculated as mass multiplied by velocity. In a typical collision, that explains why SUVs do so much more damage than regular cars. Larger commercial vehicles are often speed-limited for this reason, but, so far, SUVs have escaped such regulation.
Innovations such as electronic pedestrian detection systems are being trialled in a bid to mitigate the danger, but a major downside of such systems is that they may actually lull drivers into paying even less attention to the road.
Driving an SUV may in itself alter driver behaviour. A study by Monash University in Australia found that drivers of large SUVs had the highest ‘aggressivity rating’ of any road user. The study concluded that ‘while not improving crashworthiness overall, SUVs put other road users at a higher risk of severe injury’.
In 2008, Ireland switched its VRT and motor tax system from being based on engine size to carbon emissions. However, as emissions were calculated on the misleading NECP standard, an Oireachtas analysis found there was a loss to the Revenue of €1.7 billion from 2008-2018 with only limited emissions savings, which are now being wiped out by the proliferation of SUVs.
That standard has been scrapped in favour of the more realistic WLTP benchmark, but the Revenue have yet to implement the new system, which industry sources believe could see new car prices rise by €2,500 as well as big increases in motor tax based on the more stringent WLTP standards. Given the motor trade is enduring a torrid 2020, it’s unlikely the axe will fall in the immediate future.
As the climate crisis deepens, this is the worst possible time for a ruinous global infatuation with SUVs.
- John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism