Just How Polluting Is Your SUV? This New Campaign Might Shock You

For years, big, bulky sports utility vehicles have been among the most popular cars on American roads, and over the last decade their popularity has exploded in the U.K. But a new British campaign is highlighting some ugly facts about these oversized run-arounds.

In the U.K., SUVs now make up 40% of new vehicle purchases. According to British think tank New Weather Institute, this trend is a result of what they call “Badvertising”: advertising that encourages consumers to make environmentally disastrous decisions.

How disastrous, you ask?

On average, SUVs use about a quarter more energy to move than a standard-sized family car, because they are larger, heavier and create more drag. A quarter might not sound like much, but between 2010 and 2018, the proliferation of SUVs on the road worldwide resulted in an increase of 3.3 million barrels of gasoline used per day. As reported by Forbes.com last year, the corresponding impact of SUVs on global greenhouse gas emissions astonished researchers. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the growth of the world’s SUV fleet caused an uptick of 0.55 gigatons of CO2 over one decade, to 544 million tons of CO2, making SUVs “the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector.”

To put it another way, it means SUVs are producing more emissions than the entire aviation industry. The IEA forecasts that if conventional SUV purchases continue at the same pace, by 2040 they will have offset the emissions savings of close to 150 million electric cars.

New Weather Institute also points out that SUVs are more dangerous for pedestrians. In June, Forbes.com highlighted a study of vehicle crashes in three cities in Michigan which showed that 100% of pedestrians struck by SUVs travelling at over 40 mph or more were killed; only 54% of those struck by regular cars doing the same speed died. So great is the concern regarding the lethality of SUVs that British safety experts have called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to exclude American-made cars from post-Brexit trade deals.

Not only that, but in small countries like the U.K., where space is at a premium, SUVs take up considerably more room on narrow roads and in cramped parking lots, adding a social burden to the vehicles’ environmental cost. In its report Upselling Smoke, the campaign reveals that in 2019, consumers purchased 150,000 SUVs which were too large to fit in a standard British parking space.

Given these less-than-attractive features, why are Britons buying more SUVs?

The Badvertising campaign says carmakers tend to claim the bigger machines offer more protection than their standard-sized counterparts, while in truth these companies are promoting SUVs because they offer higher profit margins. So rather than calling for an outright ban on the vehicles, the campaign is pushing for SUVs to be treated in a similar way to tobacco, advertisements for which were banned in the U.K. in 2002 and 2003. To achieve this, the campaign has called on the U.K. secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, to introduce legislation banning the promotion of SUVs. The campaigners have also launched a petition (which by time of publication had received just 3,704 signatures) and online resources for campaigners and policymakers.

From another perspective, in a report last year the U.K. Energy Research Centre suggested the uptake of SUVs was “likely to be a product of attractive car financing packages which divert attention from running costs.” In that report, referring to the U.K.’s legal obligation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, UKERC co-director Jillian Anable said the uptake of SUVs “makes a mockery of UK policy efforts towards the ‘Road to Zero’.”

Explaining the rationale behind their campaign strategy, co-director of the New Weather Institute Andrew Simms said: “We ended tobacco advertising when we understood the threat from smoking to public health. 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.”

He continued, “in a climate emergency when we need to make the places where we live more people-friendly, SUVs are in the way of progress.”

Automakers have responded to concerns regarding SUV inefficiency by producing and pointing to electric and hybrid SUVs. But there’s no escaping physics: a larger, heavier vehicle will always require more energy to move it. This means, for example, that Audi’s e-tron 50 Quattro electric SUV consumes 365 Wh/mi (or watt hours per mile) with a claimed range of 211 miles, while Tesla
’s Model 3 Long Range Dual Motor sedan gets through just 255 Wh/mi and has a range of between 200 and 405 miles, according to EV Database U.K. And electrifying SUVs does nothing to negate the human and social harms caused by the ownership of such larger, heavier cars. The paradox of the electric SUV has not been lost on industry observers, with Autorevolution suggesting the vehicles are a “rolling contradiction.”

But if developments in the U.S. are a sign of things to come, Britons could soon be buying even larger vehicles: pickup trucks, the SUV’s more rugged cousin, are rising in popularity. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article, these extra-large machines are only growing in size, with the average weight of a pickup having risen 1,142 pounds since 1990. Because in the American market, bigger always means better. But if consumers are going to play their part in negating climate crisis—not to mention safeguarding the lives of others—tastes will need to change.

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