When I moved to Canada from Germany with my two-year-old, car-obsessed son, he was delighted to find himself in the garden of automotive delights. Not only did the range of brands extend well beyond the five he knew by heart from our cobblestoned Berlin neighbourhood, the Canadian vehicles were so much bigger. As he rightly pointed out, they weren’t even cars. One of his first English words was “SUV.”
That was 10 years ago, but Canada’s affection for the sports utility vehicle has only grown. Since 1990, the ratio of passenger cars (sedans, compacts, sports cars) to light trucks (SUVs, pickup trucks and vans) in this country has flipped; the larger vehicle segment has advanced from less than one-third to more than two-thirds of the non-commercial vehicle market.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Canada now boasts the largest market share of light trucks in the world. And with it come other chart-toppers: Of all 53 countries covered in the IEA’s latest report, Canada’s vehicles are, on average and for every kilometer driven, the highest in both fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emission.
That’s bad news. Just as the planet hurtles past the 11th hour – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned at the opening of the COP25 climate conference in Madrid last Sunday that the climate crisis had reached the “point of no return” – Canadians are demonstrating an insatiable appetite for the most climate-unfriendly mode of personal transport on offer.
Within the light-truck segment, our greatest appetite, by far, is for the SUV. And it has undeniable advantages. It is large, offering families ample space for children and all that comes with them –hockey bags, dogs, friends – and tall, offering an aging demographic easeful entry and exit.
Its height off the ground, designed for the off-road function that figures largely in the ads but nowhere else, also gives it a distinct on-road advantage. Drivers of SUVs enter the traffic fray confident that if it comes to a confrontation, those in their vehicle are in a much better position than those in, say, a Honda Fit or a Mini Cooper.
And while SUV apologists will point out that their vehicles are ever more fuel efficient, the argument isn’t helping the climate: The 18-per-cent decline in emissions from cars since 1990 has been cancelled out, and then some, by the more than doubling in total emissions from pickup trucks, vans and SUVs.
It’s not only their environmental footprint that is outsized.
SUVs occupy more parking real estate and give roads a heavier beating. And in addition to being a menace to smaller cars on the road, they can be lethal to pedestrians.
U.S. research cited in a 2015 report by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that a pedestrian struck by an SUV or pickup truck is two to three times more likely to be killed than one hit by a conventional passenger car, odds which worsen for children under 9.
Much depends on vehicle design, and not all SUVs are built equal. But the truly dark side of a high, blunt-faced vehicle is that, whereas a sedan will typically hit a pedestrian in their lower half and send them over the hood, large SUVs strike higher, at the level of a child’s head or an adult’s vital organs and are likelier to send the body under the vehicle.
But as SUVs have come to define the norm, we seem to have accepted their impact on the rest of the world. Toronto is wringing its hands over the pedestrian carnage taking place on its streets – 34 killed or seriously injured to date this year – but nowhere in its vast data collection apparatus does it break down the automobiles involved in pedestrian collisions by type.
It distinguishes between eight types of trucks (pickup, tow, dump, open, closed, car-carrying, tractor and car-carrier), but automobiles are all lumped together, making it impossible to draw any empirical conclusion about the role SUVs may be playing in what the city’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat called a “crisis.”
Other jurisdictions are less accepting. Europe, with its tighter urban design, superior public transit and stronger environmental consciousness, has been slower to embrace SUVs, but their numbers have risen in the past decade to roughly one third of sales. Because SUVs made for the European market are smaller than their North American counterparts, and European emissions standards are higher, the climate consequences of this increase are less disastrous. But Europeans are still voicing a lot more concern than we are.
When a Porsche SUV hit and killed four pedestrians standing at a traffic light in Berlin this September, there were calls by German environmental groups and Green politicians to limit the size of vehicles permitted in city cores.
In November, residents of the Swiss city of Lausanne submitted 13,000 signatures to council, proposing a prohibition of SUVs over 1500 kilograms within city limits – a petition which, in direct democracy Switzerland, could form the basis of a referendum.
Then there are bonus-malus incentive systems, first introduced by France in 2008 and subsequently adopted by several other European jurisdictions. These impose fees (malus) on high-emission vehicles, which in turn fund rebates (bonus) for low-emission ones. The rates are progressive, meaning that every gram of carbon dioxide produced per kilometer counts toward determining the penalty or boon to the car owner. Since the system’s introduction, the average carbon output of France’s fleet has steadily dropped.
Another lever that affects consumer behaviour is the price of fuel. Many Canadians kicked and screamed at the 4.4-cent-a-litre hike in the price of gas recently imposed on the four provinces that failed to come up with their own carbon schemes. But to put it all in perspective, gas prices in Canada are still among the lowest in the developed world; we pay roughly one-third less at the tanks than Europeans.
If higher fuel prices spur a move to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, we may be avoiding much heavier price tags down the road; the federal government has already set aside $2-billion for disaster mitigation and adaptation to climate change realities.
We certainly can’t expect this impulse to come from car companies. For them, the SUV is a cash cow, accounting for the lion’s share of sales and generating the highest profit margins, to be milked to death.
Savvy marketing persuades buyers that SUVs are safe, comfortable and prestigious. And even if the ads show them carving through magnificent outdoor landscapes or parked next to glinting oceans, that’s not what these vehicles are really about. To quote Mercedes-Benz’s promotion of its latest G-class SUV: “More spacious. More special. Welcome to the great indoors.”
Polls suggest that Canadians are very concerned about climate change, but somehow we fail to connect the dots between it and the gas-guzzling behemoths parked in our driveways.
Free choice may be a central tenet of our society, but when the choices we make threaten the well-being of others – or the world we live in – government has a duty to intervene. That’s the rationale behind speed limits, pollution standards and smoking bans. Why should it be any different for SUVs?
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