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The SUV Problem

I came across this advert for SUVs (4 by 4’s, or sports utility vehicles) on a local bus stop recently. In fact, I’ve seen it on several bus stops. This one was in a poor and somewhat run down working class area.

Adverts like these are having a major effect on the car market and attempts to bring down emissions from global car use. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the main international body responsible for monitoring the trends in world energy use, reported a disturbing analysis of the car market in late 2019 (see here).

The analysis started out reasonably positively, by calling attention to the fact that the conventional car market is showing signs of fatigue, dropping by several percentage points in both 2018 and 2019. They then point to the growing demand for electric cars, explaining that existing car manufacturers are planning some 250 new electric car models by 2025, and that the share of the car market taken up by electric cars is expected to expand tenfold by 2030, rising to 7% of the global car market. Say the IEA:

These trends have created a narrative of an imminent peak in passenger car oil demand, and related CO2 emissions, and the beginning of the end for the “ICE age” [the age of the internal combustion engine]. As passenger cars consume nearly one-quarter of global oil demand today, does this signal the approaching erosion of a pillar of global oil consumption?

Sadly, it doesn’t, but why not? The reason is, according to the IEA, that:

consumers are buying ever larger and less fuel-efficient cars, known as Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs).

And we’re not just talking about small growth, like the growth in electric cars. Oh no, even though we are facing catastrophic climate change, the growth is SUV sales is a staggering:

This dramatic shift towards bigger and heavier cars has led to a doubling of the share of SUVs over the last decade. As a result, there are now over 200 million SUVs around the world, up from about 35 million in 2010, accounting for 60% of the increase in the global car fleet since 2010. Around 40% of annual car sales today are SUVs, compared with less than 20% a decade ago.

I mean, you couldn’t make it up. People have literally buried their heads in the sand and opted to live in consumer ‘la la’ land rather than face reality and restrict their consumption. We are talking egoism gone mad. It’s not like people are required to make what some would call a big sacrifice, like, oh my, give up the car altogether. Oh no, we are just talking about a totally minor act of responsibility by opting to choose smaller and more economical vehicles. But no, apparently that is too much. People need to feel like they are kings and queens of the road, and to hell with the climate.

Believe it or not (and I find it very easy to believe given the advert above), in the United states nearly one half (!) of all cars sold are SUVs, while in Europe it is one third. But the trend is universal, it is occurring all over the world, as people view SUVs as symbols of wealth and status.

As a result of all this SUVs are the second biggest contributor to the growth of CO2 emissions since 2010. Yup, the second biggest, behind the power generation sector but ahead of heavy industry. Anyone still have any faith in the goodness of most of the human race?

But no, I’ve not finished yet, you’ve got to hear these statistics, they are truly terrifying, and really point out exactly why SUVs need to be heavily stigmatised and targeted, just as the Tyre Extinguisher network are saying.

Improvements in fuel economy for smaller cars and people switching to electric cars have saved some 2.1 million barrels of oil a day from the car market. I mean, that is great news, because 2.1 million barrels of oil a day is HUGE. Hats off to all those that have worked to achieve this, behind the scenes and without any public acknowledgement. Okay, we are talking about the car industry, a pretty disreputable industry, but still, nice to see that at least some people within it are trying to tackle greenhouse gas emissions within the limits that they are able to. Good work.

But oh, now comes the bad news: all of that work and effort counts for naught. Yes, absolutely nothing. Why? Because the growth in SUVs between 2010 and 2018 have added an extra 3.3 million barrels of oil a day in oil demand to the car market, because they use about 25% more energy than normal cars.

Personally, I find that galling. Really galling. Those who buy and drive SUVs are responsible for the rise in oil demand from the car market to the tune of several million barrels a day, cancelling out all of the gains made by fuel efficiency and electric vehicles.

It seems to me that this is an issue that all environmental NGOs need to be campaigning on, and lobbying the government for market intervention. Emissions from cars could be reducing if the sales of SUVs were banned, and that would send out a signal of hope to people everywhere, that at last we are heading in the right direction in an area of the market that represents the very essence of fossil fuelled lifestyles. And who would complain? It strikes me as a campaign that represents an easy win, as few people are going to fight for their right to drive SUVs if legislation is brought in to phase them out, given the facts of climate change, air pollution, and the fact they can just choose a different car. They just wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, and nobody is going to shed any tears for them, and it’s going to win massive public backing, because there are a lot of people against urban SUVs.

Is it time for a mainstream campaign to lobby for SUVs to be phased out, alongside the Tyre Extinguisher actions? I for one think it’s something the big NGOs need to get their arse in gear about, as they are missing out on what I think is an easy win.

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