SUV shaming: I care about climate change, so why am I driving an SUV?

By Dawn Stover, November 18, 2019

When I pull into a parking lot in my Toyota 4Runner, I hope I won’t see any of my friends who are environmental activists. I hope I’ll fit into the eco-conscious (read small) parking spaces at some of the places I shop. I feel like a skinny-car person in a fat-truck body.

It turns out that vehicles like mine—known as sport utility vehicles, or SUVs—are even worse for the climate than I had imagined. And I imagined they were pretty bad.

A massive carbon footprint. According to a summary analysis of a report by the International Energy Agency that was released on November 13, SUVs are the second-biggest cause of the rise in global carbon dioxide emissions during the past decade. Only the power sector is a bigger contributor.

The analysis, which surprised even its own authors, found a dramatic shift toward SUVs. In 2010, one in five vehicles sold was an SUV; today it’s two in five. “As a result, there are now over 200 million SUVs around the world, up from about 35 million in 2010,” the agency reports.

The preference for heavier SUVs is offsetting fuel-efficiency improvements in smaller cars and carbon savings from the growing popularity of electric cars. “If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions,” reported The Guardian.

I’m part of that imaginary nation. I don’t have kids. I don’t fly often. But I have a big honkin’ SUV that is killing the planet. For those of us who are worried about our carbon footprints, driving an SUV is like wearing a pair of size-18 steel-toe boots.

Status symbols on wheels. What’s the attraction of SUVs? Consumers who buy them hand manufacturers a higher profit margin than for smaller vehicles. The weight and boxy shape of SUVs makes them less fuel-efficient, so they cost more to operate and are less nimble than passenger cars. Some people feel safer in a vehicle where they sit high above the road, but the raised center of gravity makes SUVs more prone to rollovers than cars, said Consumer Reports. Some people want an SUV because they believe that an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive option will make them safer in bad weather. In reality, many drivers do not need this expensive and fuel-economy-lowering feature, and would be better off with front-wheel-drive and good tires.

Still, those disadvantages didn’t stop me and my husband from buying a full-size SUV that weighs 4,675 pounds and averages only about 19 miles per gallon. We claim we “need” an SUV to get around in the rural, mountainous area where we live, but somehow we managed to survive here for a decade without one.

People often buy vehicles for reasons that have very little to do with functionality. For many people, an SUV is a status symbol. And that is also true—perhaps even more so—for people who drive hybrid or all-electric passenger cars. A 2007 survey of Toyota Prius buyers found that more than half said they purchased a Prius because “it makes a statement about me.” Some of them are now incensed that Toyota is siding with the Trump administration against California’s efforts to improve fuel economy.

I have the opposite problem. I appreciate the utility of my sport utility vehicle, but I’m embarrassed to be seen in it. Call it “SUVskam,” Swedish for SUV shame. I’m not so ashamed (or wealthy) that I will drive to the nearest junkyard and have it crushed for its scrap metal. But I am doing everything I can to reduce the carbon footprint of my SUV.

What would Greta drive? SUVskam isn’t a thing yet, but flight shame (or “flygskam” in Swedish) is, thanks in part to the efforts of Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg to raise public awareness of the carbon emissions associated with air travel. In Europe, many flight-shamed people are switching from planes to trains. Thunberg went a step further, avoiding flygskam by taking a sailboat instead of an airliner when she traveled to the United States—and again when she left for Spain last week. Flight shame has reduced air travel enough to catch the attention of the International Air Transport Association, which is launching a campaign to tout its environmental efforts.

Calculating the carbon emissions of air travel is not as simple as “planes bad, trains good,” though. It’s complicated. It depends, for example, on how far you’re traveling and how many people are traveling with you. The same is true for SUVs. A 16-mpg Chevrolet Suburban carrying six carpoolers is burning less fuel per person than a 52-mpg Toyota Prius with no passengers.

Even if you drive an SUV, there are plenty of ways to reduce your carbon footprint. For starters, not all SUVs are created equal. My 4Runner is a gas guzzler, for sure, but it gets much better mileage than a Mercedes G550 or Jeep Grand Cherokee or Nissan Armada. Hybrid SUVs, which get even better mileage, are available for some models—but cost an average of nearly $4,000 more than their gasoline-only counterparts. Mainstream manufacturers are beginning to introduce all-electric luxury models to compete with the Tesla Model X, which costs more than twice as much as an SUV like mine. GM might even bring back the notorious Hummer as a zero-emissions SUV.

While a plug-in SUV is certainly better for the climate than a gasoline-powered model, automakers aren’t introducing these vehicles because they’re committed to climate action. They’re simply trying to capitalize on the popularity of SUVs, and to make people like me feel okay about choosing an SUV over a smaller electric vehicle that would be better for the climate.

Of course, shame isn’t a solution to anything. Those of us who already own SUVs must try to minimize our carbon footprints by reducing the miles we drive in these beasts—for example, by combining errands and walking or biking or taking public transportation when that’s an option. We can also do our best to maximize fuel efficiency—for example, by removing roof boxes and other items that add weight when not in use, taking it easy on the pedals, and optimizing fuel economy by keeping tires properly inflated.

Finally, SUV drivers can support policies such as higher gasoline taxes and higher fees for licensing heavier vehicles, even if doing so makes it more expensive to drive an SUV. After all, if you can afford to buy a vehicle that costs $30,000 or more, there’s no good reason why you can’t pay a little more than the owners of smaller vehicles toward public transportation and road maintenance. I voted against Initiative 976 in my home state of Washington, but the majority of voters just approved a flat $30 licensing fee for all vehicles—replacing a fee structure in which heavier, more damaging vehicles paid more.

Shame on the White House. Of course, individual actions are no substitute for corporate and government leadership. Whether I drive an SUV or a Prius will make very little difference for the climate. But if Akio Toyoda (the president of Toyota) and Donald Trump (who rides in an armored Cadillac that weighs more than 15,000 pounds) continue to support a rollback of auto-emissions standards, their choices will dramatically increase global warming and air pollution.

As leading climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University recently observed, climate deniers are attempting to deflect attention away from necessary systemic changes by encouraging well-meaning people to point fingers at one another instead of at the fossil fuel industry. Still, peer pressure can help move people toward healthy habits, as the popularity of bicycling has done in places like Copenhagen—where people of all ages ride bikes to work and school in any weather.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to climate change. Only by examining our own choices, and demanding that businesses and governments adopt emissions-reducing policies and regulations, can we make the progress that will be required if we are to leave future generations with a stable climate. On November 5, 11,000 scientists published a warning that the planet is facing a “climate emergency” that is “closely linked to excessive consumption” and will result in “untold suffering” if society does not undergo major transformations.

“Excessive consumption” is an apt description for the glut of SUV sales worldwide. SUV purchasing has been called an “arms race,” in which people are buying bigger vehicles mostly for one reason: Everyone else is.

That’s a shame.


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Val Schaffner
Val Schaffner

Why not at least drive the Toyota Highlander hybrid? It’s an SUV, it’s relatively efficient, and it’s been around for years.
To answer your question, when Greta was in the US, her dad drove her around in a Tesla S on loan from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Profit Greenly

Great suggestions to bike or walk instead of driving when you can. Another way you could cut the use of your SUV would be to add a used Nissan Leaf to your garage. You don’t have to be rich to do this because few people want an EV that only gets 50-80 miles per charge when they can get a new Tesla that gets over 300 so old Leafs cost very little. It’s easy to find a used Leaf with around 50k miles on it for under $5k (though you’ll probably have to add a few hundred to get it… Read more »

Gkam
Gkam

Being a former engineer for a large power company and having earned a Master of Science in Energy and the Environment, I had PV panels installed four years ago, with my estimated payback of 15-17 years, . . the right thing for an eco-freak to do. Before they could be installed, we acquired a VW e-Golf electric car. The savings in gasoline alone took the solar system payback down to 3 1/2 years. So, we added a used Tesla Model S, P85, and that took the payback down to less than three years, which means we now get free power… Read more »

David Wargowski
David Wargowski

I refer to SUV’s as Stupid Underutilized Vehicles, especially the giant ones. Why? How many times have you seen one of these giants on the road and there is only one person in it, and that’s the driver. Does that make any sense? The next article you should write is why parents will sit in front of a school 30 to 40 minutes with their engines idling (regardless of the time of year) to take their children back and forth when school bus service is readily available. And let’s not forget old-fashioned walking. This happens in both the grammar and… Read more »

Robert Gifford

For a broader view of “Why we don’t do the right thing,” check the almost-40 justifications at the dragonsofinaction,com site.

Roger N Blomquist
Roger N Blomquist

My Honda CR-V gets 30 MPG.

Edward Malvin
Edward Malvin

Not everything is what it seems. I drove a ’99 4Runner for 12+ years. I absolutely loved that car. It was the perfect all-in-one vehicle for my family at the time. At one point, I was challenged by an extremely eco-minded friend over my use of a “gas guzzler”. Ironically, although they drove a more fuel-efficient car, they put three times as many miles on it per year (30k vs 9k). Also, they insisted on driving new vehicles and bought/sold four separate fuel-efficient cars during the time I owned my 4Runner. The reality was that their carbon footprint was much… Read more »

Rose
Rose

I applaud you for speaking out about your own peccadillo, but I take issue with this assertion: “Whether I drive an SUV or a Prius will make very little difference for the climate.” Since any one person is “just one person”, we could say this about anything carbon-reducing activity we take on. You have to believe that your actions do matter. What’s more, they may matter more than you think. If, for example, you swap out vehicles, you may inspire many people around you to do the same. If this continues with others around the country, we would get to… Read more »

Jim McGowan
Jim McGowan

This is simply hypocricy. If you care about the climate and believe its a true emergency, then take action, don’t justify driving an SUV which is a primary cause of the problem. The problem isn’t Trump, it’s you, and millions of people like you who justify driving a tank when they could ride a bicycle. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, whith what you have, where you are” instead of looking for big government to do it for you – i.e expect otheres to shoulder the burden.

Alan Coovert
Alan Coovert

The question of why you drive an SUV is irrelevant because the reason the cars-first transportation system is imposed on us is not about the choices you and I make, it is about the choices that are made for us.

MawKernewek

I’m wondering why the idea of selling the SUV and replacing it with a smaller more efficient vehicle more suited to their needs doesn’t occur to the author?

Woody
Woody

My girlfriend had a nice 4Runner back in the day. I now housesit in Vermont where I drive an all wheel drive Subaru. They’re very efficient and I’ll beat you to the market in every scenario (up to 8″ of snow). If there’s ice, the 4Runner may not even make it. Four wheel drive is grossly inefficient. Another option for 2 car families is to have a very efficient 1st car. We drive the Fit everywhere cuz it’s fun, efficient and parks easy. I use our Pathfinder to tow and I’m getting a snow plow so she’ll get more use.

Phlo
Phlo

It baffles me that this article doesn’t mention once the major culprits for CO2 emissions. Military Complex, Construction, Agriculture (and Container ships), over Population. Globally cars are the least problem. Let’s imagine that we all switch to electric cars. Where does the electricity come from that charges millions of cars? Solarpanels? This problem is far more complex than just guilt tripping consumers that drive their cars. Why not focus on the big picture? Because it is impossible to stop wars, stop the need for building living spaces or feed people less. Riding my bike everyday is cool. But it won’t… Read more »

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