Should we ban ads for huge carbon emitting vehicles like SUVs?

So far, it seems I’ve shied away from the responsibility of learning to drive. My biographical excuse is that I am left-handed and had superstitious grandmothers who forced me to write with my right. So when it came to the “go left or right” call, instructor after instructor (and myself) were terrified. Sometimes my indecision was almost final.

Living in cities with buses, trains, subways (and taxis, in a panic) got me through school years, without having to figure out what a clutch actually does.

After care homework, social pressure was mounting on me to insert the keys again.

So praise be! The prospect of the self-driving car presented itself to save me. In recent years, that hope seems to have faded – a combination of unforeseen technical difficulties and insurers nervous about who or what is responsible for the inevitable crashes. Their robotic intelligence seems incapable of reacting well to significant challenges (for example, a child chasing a bouncing ball down the road).

I had such sci-fi dreams! Sipping Jack and Coke, reading A Thousand Trays and slowly swiveling in a plush seat, as my perspex bubble-roofed car hurtles down the M8, driving alone to my destination… it’s all rushing. Nevermind.

In any case, there are more serious things to face than my autotopic dreams. An article in New Scientist magazine this week makes a very strong case that governments and authorities on these islands should consider banning advertisements for carbon-intensive polluting products.

Cigarette packs must now be blank in the UK

The precedent is the now near total health ban on cigarette advertisements in the UK. And the main target of the study – commissioned by campaign groups Greenpeace and the New Weather Institute – are ads for SUVs (sports utility vehicles).

SUVs were second in their contribution to the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions, from 2010 to 2018 – surprisingly, more than heavy industry, trucks, aviation and shipping (the large size of an SUV makes it less efficient with fuel). In the decade to 2020, SUVs have gone from one in 10 new car sales to more than four in 10.

The report makes an estimate of the return on ad spend (or ROAS – that is, the number of incremental sales from ad spend, a number that ad companies have but won’t disclose). Nonetheless, the authors speculate on the surge in demand that car (and airline) ads produced in 2019.

Based on an efficiency ratio (starting from 2:1), they claim that these ads were responsible for between 202 million and 606 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions during this single year. To put this to scale, the first figure is the same amount as the full emissions of the Netherlands that year – the second almost twice that of Spain.

Brutal stuff. However, the report shows that the pressure to remove these ads comes from above and below. The latest IPCC report focused on behavior change, focusing on tighter regulation of advertisements, which have a “major influence on mitigation capacity”.

But the Greenpeace report also conducted a consumer poll in which 45% wanted to restrict ads for heavily polluting cars (69% of those respondents also agreed that the term “climate emergency” was the most relevant at the time ).

Actions against them are also taking place at the municipal level. Amsterdam and five other Dutch cities do not allow public advertisements for fossil fuel products. Liverpool, Norwich and North Somerset, along with other British councils, have done the same.

As a major automaker, France has surprisingly taken the lead in toxic car ads. As in the last days of cigarette promotion, government regulators are forcing billboards and displays to print car-critical statements. “On a daily basis, favor public transport”, or “consider carpooling”, or even “for short journeys, favor walking or cycling”.

If advertisers do not highlight the hashtag #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer in their text (meaning “move and pollute less”), they will be liable to a fine of up to €50,000 – per ad.

The New Weather Institute suggests measures like this would be an easy win for UK governments. I think they need a little more clarity on what counts as a fossil fuel horror.

I’ve looked at the top 10 vehicles on sale in the UK so far this year. There are two explicit SUVs there, each hybrid, combining electric and gasoline engines. (I assume that regarding the banning of petrol and diesel cars in 2030, these will also fall under the law). In sixth and seventh places are two fully electric Tesla models. The best-selling Vauxhall Corsa is powered exclusively by fossil fuels – as are some of the others on the list.

It doesn’t seem entirely clear to me which cars would make the cut, and which wouldn’t. There is another problem behind any consideration of their design and effectiveness. In gross volume, this represents more than 80,439 pieces of metal, glass and software/hardware sold, in two months.

It’s perhaps clearer for non-drivers, who recoil somewhat from the sheer mass of a car in their lifetime. But isn’t that just an extremely wasteful process, on every level? Do we need to produce that many cars, given the massively toxic inputs that go into their basic manufacturing? (And that certainly includes all-electric vehicles.)

The emissions graph is set to drop almost vertically from 2020 to 2050. So shouldn’t we be addressing something deeper than the “best” cars – and criticizing the atomization and individualism of car driving itself?

This is where advertising, its practitioners and funders, must drag themselves into the dock. I found a website that handles current car listings in the UK. It’s a rambling, even cheesy experience – a sordid exploitation of our desire for agency.

Various musicians strum and arpeggiate on the soundtracks, every genre from indie-schmindie to electronica to swing, desperately trying to capture your state of mind.

Most of the journeys are on eerily empty streets, highways and country roads. It’s the exact opposite of the commuter rumble that most drivers will experience in their vehicles.

Idealistic sentiments and slogans are terrible, and worse, undeserved. “Movement That Inspires”, “Feel More In Every Moment”, “Go Your Own Way”, even “Revolution” (a fully electric car, of course, with a young girl teaching her little sister about the future). And in the center, the solitary pilot in his ecstasy of sufficiency, fascias arranged in front of them like consoles on a spaceship.

As the French know – and deep down, everyone knows – we must profoundly change our modes of mobility. From private transport to public transport, from steering wheel to pedals and handlebars, from fantasy about “movement” in a metal shell, to bodily movement in pedestrian-centric cities.

Of course, I do not deny that automobile mobility can be absolutely vital, and that rural and urban areas have different needs. We could easily imagine collective modes of providing this access – carpooling, cooperatively run and state-subsidized Uber-like services, and beyond – that should be supported to grow.

But it is necessary to change tastes and values, so that these alternatives can develop. In principle, I approve of regulating car ads for health reasons – we suffer 8.7 million premature deaths a year from fossil fuel air pollution. I respectfully suggest, however, that we consumers carefully consider our own automotive desires.

I’m lucky: I’m a born klutz. So I could never buy the culture of driving. But carmageddon will play its part in the overall ruin – if we don’t check the rearview mirror carefully enough.

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