SUVs Are Worse for the Climate Than You Ever Imagined

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.

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