Smoking out polluting SUV vehicles - lessons from the tobacco-control playbook

Photo: Our Daily Planet

Highly-polluting sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are a threat to public health as well as becoming major drivers of rising climate emissions, so SUV advertising should simply be banned, urges the United Kingdom-based New Weather Institute in a report issued last week.

The parallel with tobacco: like their tobacco counterparts from the 1970s and ‘80s, SUV ads rely upon sexy images of healthy people moving about freely in the great open spaces - the same environments that the vehicles themselves are slowly contributing to damage along with the health of those behind the wheel. The report cites, as one example, a former tobacco executive’s remarks about the products he once marketed:

“The problem is how do you sell death? How do you sell a poison that kills 350,000 people per year, and 1,000 people a day? You do it with the great open spaces ... the mountains, the open places, the lakes coming up to the shore. They do it with healthy young people. They do it with athletes.”

Drawing on the lessons of successful campaigns against tobacco advertisements, the report argues that to advance climate goals, we need to wean the driving public away from its addiction to large, inefficient and highly polluting SUVs - which now comprise a whopping 40% of all private vehicles sold globally.

“The parallels between smoking and advertising climate-damaging activities like driving gas-guzzlers are, if not exact, oddly close. Tobacco causes damage to the consumers, and tobacco companies benefit from the way that they hook their most loyal customers, and while, for example, 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.”

The UK initiative is not the only one targeting the SUV market. In France, the Citizens’ Assembly for Climate included a similar proposal among 150 submitted to French President Emmanuel Macron in June. The debate takes place in the context of a decision by at least six EU countries to phase out fossil fuel vehicles between 2025 and 2040, and an increasing number of cities are adopting strong measures to curb air pollution by regulating which vehicles can access their urban centres.

Why it really matters: Consumer purchase of SUVs is literally driving climate emissions upwards, canceling out progress made on vehicle electrification or the introduction of lighter vehicles. As the International Energy Agency reported in October, 2019:

  • The rise in SUVs worldwide was the second largest contributor to the increase of global carbon emissions between 2010 and 2018, just behind power production (due to new coal and gas plants), but well ahead of heavy industry, trucks, aviation and shipping.

Global appetite for SUVs could offset benefits of switch to EVs ...

  • The SUV global market share represents now 4 out of 10 new vehicles purchased, doubling over the last decade.

Cornie Huizenga on Twitter: "Remarkable: @IEA is calling out #SUVs ...

  • SUVs consume about 25% more energy than the average mid-size car, and thus are responsible for an extra 3.3 million barrels per day in oil demand for passenger cars since 2010. If the pace of increase continues at the same rhythm, another 2 million barrels per day will be necessary, offsetting the carbon savings of 150 million electric vehicles.

  • Thanks to SUV purchases, the carbon emissions from passenger vehicles is rising globally, and threatens new emission norms set by the European Union. Those call for an average of 95 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer traveled as of 2021, so as to reduce by 35% the climate footprint of vehicles by 2030.

Big budgets to sell fat cars: anticipating stricter regulations linked to the phasing out of highly polluting cars, the automotive industry has heavily invested in the production and promotion of what has become their most profitable product. While the talk is all about electric cars, most of the industry’s annual advertising budget, some US$ 35.5 billion, is now spent on SUV advertisements.

By projecting an associated image of nature, comfort, wealth and status, publicity campaigns have been remarkably successful at selling SUVs despite their many downsides. Along with climate damage, these include: extra expense; the guzzling of urban and rural road and parking spaces; greater risks to others, especially pedestrians and cyclists; and unequal health impacts :

“Whilst everyone is affected by vehicle pollution, as with smoking there is also a highly unequal impact in that the pollution and road threat of SUV use is felt first on people who are far poorer. The desire of the vast majority for clean air holds the two campaigns together.”

An infamous Swiss record: while the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) may be based in Geneva, this does not seem to have shielded the population from the craze towards SUVs, to the contrary. In the whole of Europe, Switzerland holds the record for the highest proportion of super-polluting 4x4 vehicles per inhabitant, with 50% of new sales going to SUVs (like the United States) and an average emissions at 139grams of CO2 per kilometer of travel. Anyone walking around the city of Geneva can confirm with their own eyes the dominant role of SUVs.

Easy alternatives are at hand: unlike aviation for which there are few other solutions than reducing travel altogether, there are numerous alternatives to SUVs for land travel, including lighter vehicles, electric vehicles, public transport, cycling and walking.

The Drawdown Project estimates that the combination of shifting to alternatives, enhancing vehicle efficiency and electrification could reduce emissions by between 51.2 gigatons of CO2 up to 104.2 gigatons by 2050, almost 3 full years of today’s total world emissions. Shifting the paradigm, however, first means weaning SUV users of their addiction.

The bottom line: future generations may wonder why, with all the information on the climate crisis available in the first quarter of the 21st century, did society massively seek out and purchase super-heavy, super-polluting vehicles that were jeopardizing the planet’s future? Was it a bit like drinking champagne on the Titanic before hitting reality? Or was it, like in the case of tobacco, merely the outcome of a sustained multi-billion advertising campaign orchestrated by an industry fully aware of the poison it was selling, but bent on making whatever profits it could, before their product’s value plummeted. The New Weather Institute reminds us that the lessons from tobacco may now need to be applied to the vehicle industry to reign in damage that threatens not only our individual health but our collective future.