After Paris’s coup against SUVs, the UK should slam the brakes on these polluting monsters too

Andrew Simms, SGR, argues that the vote by Parisians to triple parking charges for behemoth cars should be the start of a much wider crackdown.

Responsible Science blog, 14 February 2024


Paris has developed a taste for better city living. Its vote to begin pricing sports utility vehicles (SUVs) off its streets by tripling parking charges is part of a diet for reversing autobesity – the trend by car manufacturers towards larger, more dangerous and polluting cars.

It’s not difficult to see what has driven Parisians’ ire: the reasons to dislike SUVs form a tailback so long it’s hard to see the front of the queue.

First, they get in the way. Size is a selling point and in the UK alone, 150,000 cars were sold in 2019 that were too big for a standard parking space. Potential green benefits from better technology have been cancelled out by vehicles getting bigger. Average car width in the EU and UK has been growing by 1cm every two years (if that continues, by the year 2544 the typical car will be as wide as an average UK terrace house). Astonishingly, in the US the average weight of a new car is almost two tonnes.

It takes a lot of materials to build bigger cars and an increasing amount of energy to move them. With bulk comes pollution and waste. In the decade from 2010, the International Energy Agency found that “SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions” after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry, trucks and aviation. Emissions from the motor sector could have fallen 30% more between 2010 and 2022 if car sizes hadn’t grown.

Then there is the other problem: electric or not, SUVs are killers. People in a light vehicle are three times more likely to get seriously injured when in collision with a much bigger car than one of similar weight; and for pedestrians and cyclists, the risk of death rises 30% if the bonnet of the car that hits them is 10cm higher than average.

For these reasons, Paris’s vote against the SUV is a vote against four-wheeled antisocial behaviour. Like most cities, Paris wasn’t built for cars. Being overwhelmed by SUVs – the motoring equivalent of an angry pedestrian with their elbows out, blowing smoke in people’s faces – has been a step too far.

But how did we get here and what can be done? SUVs didn’t just swarm on to city streets like a natural phenomenon – even if that’s the impression the adverts like to create. In a very short period of time, consumer behaviour was switched on to the SUV by massive marketing campaigns and new consumer debt models, in the shape of personal contract purchase (PCP) loans.

In 2010, SUVs accounted for just one in 10 new car sales in the EU, but by last year this had climbed to over half. It’s a stunning example of how quickly a heavily polluting sector can change. Unfortunately for human health and the climate, it has been in the wrong direction. Why is not hard to understand. In a saturated car market, manufacturers found they could charge more and make more profit from SUVs.

Depending on the target consumer, the marketing for these vehicles tends to lurch from positing them as weapons for urban warfare or, perversely, as tools to reconnect with nature. Toyota, the world’s biggest car manufacturer and a major SUV maker, recently had an SUV advert banned by the ASA for depicting a fleet roaming like animals over a natural landscape. The advert “disregarded their impact on nature and the environment” and “had not been prepared with a sense of responsibility to society”. Things could also get awkward for Toyota as it is a major sponsor of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Now, a comfortable majority of Parisians have delivered a popular censure of SUVs, and it looks like London, under mayor Sadiq Khan, could follow suit. Expect outcry from some quarters. But as Giulio Mattioli, a transport researcher at the Technical University in Dortmund, points out, higher parking fees for SUVs may get framed as a “war on cars”, but the fact that SUVs are more likely to actually kill people almost never gets framed as a war on people by oversized cars.

Increasing the cost of using an SUV is one way ahead, but owners of the worst SUVs tend to be wealthy and might pay regardless. Tightening up size and weight-based vehicle restrictions is another. But the SUV craze has been driven by marketing, so an obvious step would be to introduce tobacco-style bans on their advertising. Authorities ranging from Amsterdam to Stockholm have done so. Cambridge, Norwich, Coventry and others in the UK have introduced high-carbon ad bans. The people of Paris have a long tradition of reclaiming their streets. This time they might encourage others to take their own back from SUVs.


Andrew Simms is assistant director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Badvertising campaign and the Rapid Transition Alliance, and a research associate at the University of Sussex.

This article was first published on The Guardian website at:

[Image credit: by Dariusz Sankowski via Pixabay]

Picture of a sports utility vehicle

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