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Look up at the sky, at that jumbo jet burning aviation fuel to stay aloft at 900 kilometres an hour. Look out to sea, at the container ship with an engine as big as a house. Better yet, check out all those 18-wheelers idling on the highway in stop-and-go traffic. The world runs on behemoth gas guzzlers such as these.

Cars and SUVs hardly seem like they’re the dirtiest part of our transportation system, and yet there’s so much focus on making them cleaner and greener. It’s the reason new electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are coming soon to every dealership near you.

But are cars really the problem? How much does that hunk of metal in your driveway contribute to climate change that’s causing pollution? As it turns out, quite a bit. Cars and SUVs are a significant contributor to Canada’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are pushing the world into a climate crisis.

Light-duty vehicles (read: cars) produce more than four times the GHG emissions of all domestic aviation, according to Canada’s 2019 national greenhouse gas inventory.

If you include light-duty vehicles and light-duty trucks – so, cars, pickups, SUVs and smaller vans – they account for nearly half of all GHG emissions from the transportation category. Heavy-duty vehicles, such as 18-wheelers and larger pickup trucks, make up the other big chunk, at 35 per cent. Railways account for 3.8 per cent of the category, while motorcycles contribute 0.2 per cent.

“Transportation has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of GHG emissions, and cars fall into that category,” says Christopher Kennedy, an engineering professor at the University of Victoria and an expert in carbon accounting and inventories. “Transportation is very much linked to wealth and income. It’s a reflection on the vibrancy of the economy, to some degree,” he adds.

A record number of new vehicles – more than two million – were sold in Canada in 2017, the year documented in the latest GHG inventory. These new cars and trucks added to the 23.1 million registered vehicles (under 4,500 kilograms) on our roads. Compare that with 20 years ago, when there were just 16.5 million such vehicles, according to Statistics Canada. There are more people in this country driving more cars and trucks.

But it’s not just the number of vehicles that are driving up GHGs – it’s the type of vehicles automakers are selling and that Canadians are buying.

You might be surprised by which vehicles pollute more than others. The compact Honda Civic emits 149.6 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilometre, according to data from a 2018 City of Toronto electric mobility report. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid – a larger SUV – is actually worse, despite being a hybrid, emitting 185.7 grams of CO2/km. The Ford F-150 pickup is, predictably, dirtier still, producing 269.3 grams of CO2/km. Plug-in hybrids are much cleaner, at least in terms of fuel-associated emissions; plugged into Ontario’s electricity grid, the Toyota Prius Prime produces the equivalent of just 6.2 grams of CO2/km.

As a rule, SUVs and pickups burn more gas than cars since they’re typically heavier, less aerodynamic and usually have all-wheel drive.

“In Alberta and the Prairies, you’ve got an increase in the percentage of SUVs on the road compared to 20 years ago,” Kennedy says. “They may be more efficient than SUVs 20 years ago, but [now there are] more of them.”

Take a big SUV such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4x4, for example. The 1995 model would burn through 15.6 litres of gas per 100 km. The 2019 model gets 11.3L/100 km. That’s progress, especially considering both use big V6 engines. Despite that, however, total emissions from light-duty trucks (pickups, SUVs and vans) have more than doubled in Canada since 1990. As Kennedy has said, it’s simply because there are more of them.

Light trucks now account for nearly three of every four new vehicles sold in Canada, according to data from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. Cars, meanwhile, made up just 26.8 per cent of the new-vehicle market in the first six months of 2019. This shift toward SUVs cuts across demographic lines. They’re purchased by buyers of all ages and incomes, who appreciate the higher seats, all-wheel drive and rugged image. You can see the trend in Toyota’s sales as well as Lamborghini’s. Ford will stop selling cars in North America altogether, focusing on trucks and SUVs instead.

The result? While pollution from light vehicles has declined, pollution from light vehicles and light trucks combined has gone up – way up, by about 33 per cent since 1990, according to national GHG inventory data. “The greatest emission growth since 1990 has been observed in light-duty gasoline trucks, light-duty diesel trucks and heavy-duty diesel vehicles,” according to the authors of Canada’s latest national GHG inventory.

In other words, we’re winning the battle – individual vehicles are more efficient – but we’re losing the war; pollution from vehicles is still rising.

Transportation-related emissions are a major culprit in Canada’s rising overall GHG emissions. “[The transportation category] contributed the equivalent of 43 per cent of the total overall growth in emissions observed in Canada,” the inventory report noted. And much of that is coming from what we drive.

So, before you point your finger up at jumbo jets and cruise ships, take a look at the mall parking lot. Passenger vehicles still need to clean up their act.

The good news is that, when it comes to that hunk of metal in your driveway, cleaner solutions already exist. Smaller, lighter, more efficient cars – as opposed to trucks and SUVs – are available now. Car-sharing services mean you might not even need to buy a car. And while all-electric jumbo jets are still a long way off, hybrid and electric vehicles are already in showrooms.

Major players in the auto industry are bullish on electric vehicles (EVs) at the moment, too. The Volkswagen Group and Toyota, two of the world’s biggest automakers, have recently upped their EV sales targets. The VW Group alone plans to introduce nearly 70 new electric vehicles by 2025. Hopefully it won’t be too little, too late.

Consumer choice will only go so far toward solving this climate crisis, but the numbers show that what we choose to drive can make a difference.

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