This article was amended on 4th November 2023
Ireland´s spectacular economic recovery has occurred alongside a rather more ominous threat, bigger, beefier cars, particularly in the capitals leafy suburbs. Once a workhorse that lugged tools around or for bumpy off-road driving, the SUV has now morphed into the default option for families puttering around suburbia of our countries largest cities and more densely populated suburbs. See: The history of the SUV: From niche to domination.
What is an SUV?
But what is an SUV? Broadly speaking, SUV stands for sport utility vehicle and refers to any car with a tall, chunky body and high ride height. The name is used to describe everything from jacked-up small hatchbacks based on city cars to large-seven seat family vehicles.
Some of Dublin’s most popular SUVs include: (take a breath)
- BMW-X series, Hyundai Santa Fe/Tucson, Kia Sportage, Honda C-RV
- Land Rover Discovery/Range, Mazda CX-5, Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class
- Nissan X-Trail, Skoda Kodiac, Toyota Rav4, Volkswagen Touareg
More recently there is a newer type of vehicle called the Crossover. Similar in looks, it exists as one single structure under the hood while a traditional SUV is heavier and uses a truck chassis. Crossovers are thus supposedly smaller, lighter, and less off-road capable vehicles designed for more urban needs. But the reality is they are not much smaller and thus most people find it difficult to tell them apart. Examples of crossovers include the Dacia Duster and Nissan Qashqai.
According to the Irish Times article titled The age of SUVs: tectonic shifts in the cars we buy and how we buy them, our vehicles have actually been getting bigger successively for the past 20 years and this change tends to be mostly reflected in Dublin’s wealthier suburbs and chiefly amongst older residents and some young families.
“The people who tend to buy smaller hatchbacks – are driven into the second-hand market in Ireland, leaving the new car sales charts to older, generally wealthier buyers.”
Older buyers again are often drawn to SUVs because they feel that the higher seats make them easier for getting in and out of, even if the actual difference in seat height is often measured in mere millimetres.
As for the younger buyers? Many of them are being drawn into SUVs because they perceive them (often incorrectly) as roomier and more practical for family life. Car manufacturers are keen to target growing families, with the messaging that a growing family needs a functional vehicle with storage.
They are an integral part of Ireland´s increasingly Americanised culture of consumerism and individualism. They are also designed to be the perfect fit for the latest Irish family must, the designer stroller.
The BMW stroller for example was designed by Carolyn Komminsk, Maclaren’s chief of design, who quoted in an interview with the New York Times:
“I believe we’ve captured the enthusiasm of car, design and style enthusiasts,” Komminsk said. “ The audiences we are after, in addition to mothers, of course, are fathers. “Our buggies have VIN numbers, like a car, so we can trace a unique part all the way back to its origin.”
Car manufacturers remain two steps ahead in thinking of everything they can to lock us into driving bigger vehicles. Similar to SUV’s they are marketed under the guise of increased levels of safety and protection when ironically one of the biggest threats to a stroller is it being struck by a large vehicle.
But are SUV´s really that bad? Let´s dive in.
THE PROBLEM: Emissions, Child Labour, Energy Use, Child Safety, Space Requirements
EMISSIONS are perhaps the greatest problem with driving SUVs. Not only are they severely contributing to global warming, some of them are also particularly detrimental to human health.
- NOx & PM (particulate matter)
PM are tiny particles of solid and liquid matter. They are measured in millimetres, either less than 10mm or 2.5mm. The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter – making it 30 times larger than the largest fine PM particle. The World Health Organization has classified ambient outdoor particulate matter as a Group 1 human carcinogen 1. From cars, PM comes from the exhaust as well as from tyres and brakes as they wear down. Particles are measured in nanometres, and some are small enough to pass through the pores in our lungs. PM has also been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Even in a world with new variants of Covid, a respiratory disease, there are a number of difficulties in trying to get an accurate figure of how many premature deaths that air pollution from NOx and PM cause, and it’s impossible to separate the effects of each emission. But a 2018 report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) puts the UK figure as an equivalent of 28,000 to 36,000 premature deaths from NO2 from NOx and PM combined, or 328,000 to 416,000 life years.
The amount of non-exhaust particulate matter a vehicle emits is determined by many factors, including vehicle weight, driving styles, the material composition of brakes, tyres and roads, and the amount of dust on road surfaces. Lightweight electric vehicles with a driving range of about 100 miles (161 km) emit an estimated 11-13% less PM2.5 than conventional vehicles in the same segment. However, heavier electric vehicles with battery packs enabling a range of 300 miles (483 km) emit an estimated 3-8% more PM2.5 than equivalent conventional vehicles.
This is one of the reasons car companies go to great lengths to disguise them, and no further was this evident when the worlds largest automaker VW admitted to putting about 11 million cars worldwide, (including eight million in Europe) on the road with so-called “defeat devices” which gave completely false readings . Emissions readings for example emitted up to 40 times more NOx in a real-world driving setting than what was stated by the company.
The scandal made a relatively low-impact in the media however, and subsequently even less of a difference to consumer habits. Whilst the evidence was damning the reality it revealed simply wasn’t convenient. Thus, Volkswagen remained in the top 3 selling car brands in the months and years following the scandal, including in Ireland. With subsequent evidence of a more widespread problem, it could be perhaps argued however that despite the fact one of the main differences between Volkswagen and many of their competitors is simply, they got caught.
But even the official road tax measurements of countries like Ireland don’t factor in true emissions of these vehicles anyway. The emissions are taken from manufacturers tests which do not include all of these gases and most experts do not consider a true reflection of a vehicle’s on road emissions which tend to increase over time. A full emissions test including particulate matter and the gases mentioned in the image above would give a more balanced picture on the actual ‘green’ credentials of large vehicles.
The impact of these gases is a greater hazard to health in built up areas, but evidence shows SUVs are favoured by city-dwellers as much as country folk in Ireland: nearly 19,000 were sold in Dublin last year (2021), nearly half of new cars registered in that county.
- Carbon monoxide
When it enters our body it combines with haemoglobin (which carries the oxygen from lungs and carbon dioxide to the lungs) and makes it ineffective to do its normal function. The inhalation of carbon monoxide results in the formation of carboxyhemoglobin, which reduces the flow of oxygen to the body parts and can cause severe seizure and eventually death. When released into the air it breaks down relatively quickly to form a part of ground-level ozone. If this gas is so toxic when directly inhaled by humans, why have we normalised releasing more of it into the atmosphere?
Last year sports utility vehicles accounted for nearly half of all global cars sold, with particular growth in the US, India and Europe, according to the International Energy Agency.
SUVs are also harder to electrify than sedans and other passenger cars, presenting another challenge to reining in auto sector emissions. Their larger bodies and power-trains require bigger batteries capable of pumping out more electricity.
The amount of planet-heating carbon pollution produced by the 330 million SUVs now on the world’s roads rose to around 1 billion tons in 2022.
To put that into perspective:
Electrified SUVs also share the same dangers as fossil fuelled ones: Their larger size and elevated chassis which make them more comfortable to drive increases the “blind zone”, making streets less safe for other road users, especially children. Any vehicle moving at speed towards a crowd of children will have a devastating impact but basic physics dictates collisions involving heavier vehicles cause even more damage. They also make visibility poorer for other drivers, and heavier vehicles are more likely to have better outcomes in a collision with a smaller vehicle. This incentivises others to drive bigger cars to feel safe – a self-reinforcing loop – at the expense of vulnerable road users and locking society into the broader problem of car dependence. According to a recent planning report:
“Ireland is car dependent by design, high in greenhouse gas emissions and does not support improved wellbeing”. — OECD
A study published in the Journal of Safety Research estimates that child pedestrians or cyclists are up to 8 times more likely to be killed when hit by an SUV compared to a typically smaller, lighter passenger car. These accidents are particularly traumatic for everyone involved including the driver of the vehicle.
CHILD LABOUR: African child labour within the motoring industry has been well documented in news outlets such as the Financial Times for some time, and more recently evidence has emerged of it being practised further afield. In fact a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Co has used child labour at a plant that supplies parts for the Korean carmaker’s assembly line in nearby Montgomery, Alabama, according to area police, the family of three underage workers, and eight former and current employees of the factory. Source: Reuters.
See also: How ‘modern-day slavery’ in the Congo powers the rechargeable battery economy -(NPR, Feb 2023)
Barriers to Change:
Clientelism and poor communication: Changing the status quo is difficult, and politicians are aware of wedge issues that peak local’s frustrations. However, our political leaders have access to insight and information that is not as readily available to the general public. We must be willing to ask ourselves what is the motivation of a political leader who simply placates to our concerns and never challenges them or attempts to educate us on the potential shared benefits of proposed changes.
A good example of this could be seen in some of the discourse around BusConnects. While there is no doubt that mistakes were made with early iterations of this project, it is fair to say that the information passed on to residents from local politicians was of a relatively poor standard. In fact, much of the criticism around the earlier iterations of the project was legitimately concerned with road-widening, a design which was proposed in part to placate concerns around driver access and maintain separate car lanes instead of the more ambitious action of actually re-prioritizing the existing road-space to favour more sustainable high-occupancy modes such as bus travel and cycling. Unfortunately, this type of detailed discussion often falls victim to all-or-nothing fallacies. As a result, a false dilemma occurs when a limited number of choices, outcomes, or views are presented as the only possibilities. Statements like “We can´t all take the bus”, “Public transport is not reliable” etc.. drown out the possibility of having real productive discussion about imagining solutions for a cleaner more connected city.
A move towards increased public transport requires an increasing number of orbital and radial routes, bus priority signalling for faster journey times and improved bus shelter facilities amongst other improvements, but these points barely get a look in amongst the “noise”.
Advertising: Despite this, SUV’s are heavily advertised on almost all Irish news platforms including RTE, Irish Times and Independent. Open one of these websites now and chances are the sidebar or heading bar is occupied by an add for the latest Hyundai or Land Rover near you.
Irish people are being completely bombarded with advertisements about buying newer, bigger cars.
“Back in the early 2000s, when the building trade and the construction trade was booming, a lot of guys working for construction firms were given big 4x4s as company cars. They became kind of intrinsically linked with success, and that image spread out to other models.”– The Irish Times
Greenwashing – Greenwashing involves making an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than they actually do. For example, the most popular car brand in Ireland, Hyundai, uses a slogan that says “Start your journey towards a greener Ireland”.
With adverts such as these, it is thus no surprise then that “The dominant form of transport for school children remained the car with 55% of primary school and 42% of secondary school children being driven or driving to school.” –Central Statistics Office Data 2022. In fact it has been estimated that a single Dublin commuter will, on average, spend over 213 hours a year stuck in traffic (28 extra minutes each rush hour). –NTA
Vandalism: We are aware of the group that is circulating in Dublin and beyond, deflating people’s tyres and leaving notes about the impact of their vehicles. Deflating SUV tyres is a criminal act and, maybe more importantly, the climate activists doing it likely don’t know who might need to use such car while it’s disabled. It is a dangerous action which could be the difference between life or death for a vulnerable person who for example needs to be rushed to hospital due to a medical emergency. Deflating tyres is wrong, and so is the rise in number of SUVs and the climate inaction on transport which must be confronted in consensus building ways.
As regards for the impact in Ireland, over the past 12 months, Ireland had its wettest October on record in 2022, its wettest March on record earlier this year and now July 2023 is the wettest since records began in 1940.
As Prof Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester recently told the Irish Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, “if there’s a climate emergency, you don’t sell SUVs”.
If the evidence is so damning about SUV´s destroying the planet why are so many people in Dublin still driving them? The answer is multi-faceted. For one, it is hard to get people to retrain their brain to think of something ordinary and common in their world as suddenly posing a threat to society at large. People do not think that it makes any difference whether they as an individual decide to drive their child to school for example so they continue to do it as do those around them. The hard reality is every trip they take moves the planet just one tiny step closer to the next heatwave, forest fire or storm. In the case of Ireland, because the cumulative effects of these actions are mostly felt by countries that are far away, our brains can tend to absolve themselves of any part to play in this problem but that is simply not the case. We must ask ourselves if we are complicit if we fail to make better choices (where those choices are available) regarding climate change. The Climate Change Performance Index had this to say about Ireland:
“Ireland (rank 48) is the worst-performing EU country in the CCPI, remaining a deplorable member of the group of very-low performing countries.” – Climate Change Performance Index (2019)
The good news is there is plenty that we can do…
People powered advocacy: Advocacy groups such as the Dublin Cycling Campaign, Irish Cycle, Irish Doctors for the Environment and Dublin Commuter Coalition have been successful in mobilising improvements to public transport across the city and are always looking for new members.
Being a climate communicator: Building consensus around alternative forms of transport can be hard work.
Public transport projects very often face considerable local opposition in the face of the large amounts of disruption they cause during the construction phase and the sense that it is difficult to take something away from people that they have done for so long. Cycle tracks across the city such as the Sandymount cycle project have been rejected due to local concerns about driving restrictions and vehicular access.
What an individual can do here is to participate in these consultations and attempt to educate local audiences on the benefits of active travel and the compromises necessary to make it a reality. Your voice matters and having a direct conversation with even one person in your life can have a more profound difference than you imagine as it can start a ripple effect.
Being an early-adopter (Individual Behaviour):
“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” –Cavett Robert
- Bringing yourself up-to-speed on the public transport options available to you is a good place to start. See: TFI LIVE ANDROID OR TFI LIVE APPLE (DUBLIN BUS) OR TFI GO ANDROID OR TFI GO APPLE (EVERYTHING ELSE)
- Try to take one extra journey this week using active travel (cycling, walking) or public transport. By walking and cycling where possible, you can save even more carbon emissions. See #YourJourneyCounts by Gov Ireland.
- Stop delaying, objecting and protesting to BusConnects.
- Try to make smarter choices for when you eventually buy a new car, see: How to not buy an SUV – The Irish Times
- Vote for those who vow to fund active travel: #vote-planet-transfer-planet
It’s a popular trope to say that voting makes no difference, that all politicians are crooks and out for themselves but the reality tells a very different story. In Ireland there are some politicians who are making considerable efforts to bring about a transport revolution right across the country.
Ireland has also done relatively well in avoiding the binary language of left-right politics which really over-simplifies the complex nature of political strategy. It may be reasonably argued that left-wing parties have a better record on prioritising climate policy but this is not always a foregone conclusion. It is best to consult the websites etc… of each political party and take the time to educate yourself on what their policies are in this area.
Voting for those with political courage to change the tax structure: The Volkswagen emissions scandal revealed to just what extent vehicle manufacturers will go to evade transparency on the climate impact of their vehicles.
France has imposed a new weight tax on heavy cars and sport utility vehicles as part of a plan to get automakers to reduce CO2 emissions, according to it´s Environment Minister Barbara Pompili. In Ireland, a similar weight tax could apply to new vehicles that weigh more than 1400kg.
What are our leaders saying?
Meanwhile, the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform said in an interview that he was opposed to a prohibitive tax being put in place to discourage people from buying SUVs.
“I think if people want to have an SUV, the motor tax they are paying is already very high. They pay for having them. I don’t think that tax levels should be prohibitive. But I think the balance that we have at the moment now is right.” 
As I put it recently in my blunt advice to Irish cities, “Your goal SHOULDN’T be to replace a million fossil fuel vehicles with a million electric vehicles. It should be to replace a million fossil fuel vehicles with 250K electric vehicles. The answer HAS to be FEWER cars.”Brent Toderian – City planner + urbanist leading @TODUrbanWORKS
Similarly the current Tánaiste has dismissed calls to raise taxes on SUV’s saying he would prefer bigger grants for electric vehicles .
Research carried out on behalf of the European Commission found that 76% of Irish people use a car as their main transport mode on a typical day — up 8 percentage points since a similar poll was conducted in 2019. Only Cypriots (85%), a much poorer nation, had a higher level of dependency. The EU average was just 47%.
Ireland is not doing it’s part on this issue and our passive nature as consumers of these vehicles is putting younger generations in danger, both here in the future and in other nations across the world, right now in the present.
The vast majority of SUV owners in Dublin simply don´t actually need one. We survived just fine without them as a society with large family sizes for generations and we can do so again.
Ultimately choosing the convenience of driving an SUV for personal use comes at a massive societal cost to everyone, and we need to be fearless in speaking truth to this sad reality in the hopes that we can change direction, and the sooner the better…
1. Leave us a comment below and/or copy this link and share with friends, local community groups etc…
2. Remember to vote in both local and national elections for a greener alternative. There are several political parties in Ireland which have called for tougher sanctions on non-commercial heavy vehicles and SUV´s.