The windshields of large cars parked in my Berlin neighbourhood were plastered this week with angry messages on lurid orange stickers. The owners were told that: “Driving an SUV causes serious climate damage”, “SUVs harm your unborn child,” and “Driving an SUV causes impotence”.
That last one may have been a joke.
Sports utility vehicles have long been hated by the more civic-minded among us. They tend to consume more fuel, spew out more pollution and take up more parking space. It’s been suggested that their size and weight are also partly to blame for the rising number of pedestrian road deaths.
The car industry has carried on regardless, producing millions of these gas-guzzlers to hugely profitable effect. Just look at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and its lucrative love affair with Jeep and RAM trucks. But things might start to change and there’s one big reason why: Shame.
With most people now recognising the threat of an overheating planet, it’s hard to pretend that your huge car isn’t part of the problem. And it’s this embarrassment factor that Berlin’s environmental activists were targeting so effectively with their orange stickers. That should deeply trouble many in the car industry who have made all-in bets on SUVs and trucks. Other sectors whose consumer products or services are visible polluters won’t escape either.
Shame has long been recognised as an effective tool for changing antisocial behaviour. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, it helped tribes preserve social cohesion; being ostracised was potentially fatal and thus selfishness was best avoided.
Shame is what makes the Fridays for Future movement, which encourages schoolchildren to go on strike about climate change, so effective. It’s embarrassing that it takes our kids to show us we’re screwing up the planet, and it’s also a reminder that they’ll suffer more from climactic catastrophe. The same can be said for Britain’s traffic-stopping Extinction Rebellion protests, which were met by a surprisingly sympathetic response from the public. And social stigma is certainly what’s driving a burgeoning boycott of passenger flights in northern Europe. Sweden even has a word for it: “Flygskam” (flying shame). Boasting on social media about that trip to the Maldives has become deeply uncool.
Embarrassment is already a powerful force in politics and the corporate world. The publication of gender pay figures or CEO-to-worker salary ratios is all about guilt-tripping companies into more equitable practices. California names and shames the most delinquent tax payers, which is a decent incentive to pay up.
Like the car industry, the aerospace world is acutely aware of the potential business damage from this phenomenon. At the Paris Air Show, executives were on the defensive.
The chief technology officers of seven leading manufacturers made a rare joint statement emphasising their commitment to decarbonising flight. It’s a pretty forlorn task. They know that twin-aisle commercial jets won’t run only on electric power for decades — the thrust required is simply too great.
An aviation industry plan to cap emissions at 2020 levels has been criticised for its reliance on questionable carbon offset projects. Some analysts think that a Nordic-style public backlash that spurs governments into taxing the industry properly is a serious threat to its growth.
“We can easily imagine how environmental awareness might cap consumer demand for second or third holidays by air,” says HBSC’s Andrew Lobbenberg.
Of course, an embarrassed individual’s decision to fly less and drive a smaller car won’t solve the problem by itself. Governments have to take decisive and united action to decarbonise the global economy by tackling heavy industry and power production. The success of the Greens in the recent European elections shows that’s what many people want.
Unfortunately the European Union failed to agree on a net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050 because of opposition from coal-dependent central European states. Even Germany, Europe’s wealthiest economy, doesn’t intend to phase out coal until 2038.
You can see then why many environmental protesters have decided to take their message directly to individual consumers. The shaming of car buyers and airline passengers still doesn’t capture some of the worst decisions we make as consumers of energy, though. A study commissioned by the British government on how the country could get to net-zero emissions noted there was still no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems.
Yet nobody goes around putting stickers on homes with gas boilers. Still, most of us realise that the consumption decisions we make are contributing to the climate crisis. Our kids will grow up on an increasingly inhospitable planet and many of us long to be rid of that legacy.
That’s why I think there’s reason for optimism around the activities of one of the worst pollution culprits in recent years: Volkswagen AG. After the disgrace of its diesel emissions cheating scandal, the world’s biggest carmaker has found the electric faith and expects 40 per cent of its sold vehicles will be battery-powered in 2030.
It still sells too many combustion engine SUVs but it wears that shame on its sleeve, admitting that its cars and trucks produce as much as 2 per cent of global carbon emissions.
VW’s latest TV ad features an employee despairing about “dieselgate”. With a Simon and Garfunkel track to get us in the forgiving mood, the designer sketches the outline of an electric camper van — a throwback to the old hippie bus, just without the pollution.
My guess is that Berlin activists won’t be putting stickers on one of those in future. They’ll be driving one.