SUVs: A Lesson in The Emotional Challenge of Climate Action

Walk around any urban neighbourhood and you’ll see SUVs everywhere. This is despite them being bad for us – from increased emissions to increased road accidents. Yet they’re more popular than ever.

Why is this? And what can we learn from this in motivating more people to take climate action?

In this article we’ll explore what motivates people and how we can deploy this in selling climate action.

What is the problem with SUVs?

SUVs have risen in popularity over the past decade. Sales have climbed from 6% of all vehicles in 2009 to 21% in 2019.

They are outselling electric vehicles 37 to 1. Even with the rise of the EV, the accelerated rise in SUVs has undone all of the emissions saved.

75% of SUVs are purchased by those living in Urban Areas too, which is increasing local pollution, reducing road space unnecessarily. These sales are driven by people wanting to feel safer in local urban roads and on the School Run, not a sudden increase in off-roading. Their success is one of want rather than need.

More Emissions

Analysts have predicted this increased road emissions by 8 million tonnes of CO2 (for context, all flights in and out of COP26 were around 60,000 tonnes).

SUVs typically produce 25% more emissions than an equivalent medium sized car.

The UK’s best selling car in 2021 was the Vauxhall Corsa, which generates around 100g of CO2 per km. However, the Qashqai, the most popular SUV generates 140g of CO2 per km.

2021 SalesCO2 per KM
Vauxhall Corsa38,000100g
Nissan Qashqai28,000140g

An increase of 25% across such a high number of cars being sold quickly undoes other measures for reducing road and transport related emissions.

More Road Deaths

Due to their size, SUVs have been linked to increased deaths – both of their drivers and of other road users. SUVs are heavier, and due to the height more likely to hit smaller objects on the roads. You’re 11% more likely to die in a crash in an SUV than other vehicle types. (The extra size increases risk tolerance of drivers). Extra height increases head and chest injuries on pedestrians, also increasing death chances for non-vehicle road users.

More Pollution Deaths

Linked to increased emissions are increased air pollution. Around 40,000 people a year (110 per day) die from air pollution related complications, tied directly to traffic.

More SUVs will likely increase pollution related deaths.

Why do people buy SUVs?

So, SUVs are more dangerous for road users, cause more emissions, cost more to run and ruin our roads more quickly to extra weight.

They’re also incredibly popular.

What does this tell us about tackling Climate Change?

When talking about climate action we need to focus on this and not be distracted by telling people only what is factually correct / logical – this is not how people make decisions.

Instead we need to focus on what makes people feel good.

What motivates people to buy things?

When it comes to sales, there are several key reasons people make purchases. With SUVs, it’s clear that emotional rewards are higher than the logical reasons to purchase one.

Car companies are experts at using this to their advantage, and we need to learn what we can from them!

There are functional purchases, social and emotional.

Functional purposes are to save time, reduce hassle and make tasks easier to achieve.

Emotional are ones that are entertaining, make people feel better (wellness, diet), nostalgic or are rewarding (fancy meals out).

Finally Social are all around projecting image and status or belonging to a “club”. Tesla is an obvious one here with a strong ownership club, but SUVs more broadly providing an image to buy into.

What does this mean for the climate?

Importantly, people are not motivated by fear. There has to be a balance to the equation where there is also a gain. Simply focusing on the threat of climate change leaves individuals paralysed.

Instead, we need to sell action and empowerment. Tree planting is a good example of this.

It’s accessible, cheap, easy to understand and makes people feel good and like they’re helping. Providing climate relief to climate anxiety is why there’s been such growth in that area in the recent year.

Reduction in lifestyle would of course be more impactful. Not taking a flight would be easier than offsetting it from a climate perspective, but the lure of travel and adventure is much more motivating.

If we want to have meaningful change on the climate, we need to understand what is driving people away from making logical decisions into emotional ones, and place Climate Action accordingly.

SUVs factually cost people more, increase risks to their health and generate more emissions. However, their popularity isn’t slowing down because they make people feel good. Rather than work against this, we need to adopt similar strategies and provide more compelling alternatives.


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