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No, you do not need a SUV

Every week, there’s something new to remind us that we are headed at full speed toward a very bleak future. Climate change is already catastrophic, and instead of acting, our country and for that matter most of humanity appears determined to ignore the problem as it spirals out of control. You and I may not be able to stop it, but we can at least live our lives in a way that contributes as little to the problem as possible.

In that regard, there are some easy and relatively painless things that you can do to drastically reduce your carbon footprint without sacrificing your quality of life. You can pay a small amount to choose renewable electricity, you can heat your house with an electric heat pump, and you can make some small changes to your diet. Going completely green on transportation may be more difficult – the best options are public transportation, walking, and biking, but given the way our cities are designed, that’s not always an option for everyone, especially people with kids. If you’re in the market for a new car, you should go electric if you can afford it. Whatever you do, if you’re a person of conscience that is awake to the disastrous consequences of climate change, you can avoid driving an SUV.

Think about it this way – what about these gas guzzling monsters is something that you ‘need’ on a regular basis? Most of the cars on the road that I see every day are SUVs, and most of them have only one person inside and are not carrying anything particularly bulky or heavy, but people tell me that they buy them because they take occasional trips to the big box home improvement store, go camping a couple of times a year, or take a trip with their extended family once or twice a year. 

The most affordable and the most ethical thing to do is to get the car that can handle what you do 98% of the time and find some other solution for the occasional summer vacation or home improvement project. I’ve been able to get by with a family of 4 with a ford focus that gets 46 miles to the gallon on the highway (3 cylinder turbocharged engine with a 6 manual transmission, and don’t believe the link – I routinely get over 45 mpg when driving carefully on the highway) and another older ford focus automatic that gets around 39. Here’s how I’ve done it.

First, I put two car seats in the back. Yes, it’s a little more cramped than an SUV, but it works, and presents no issues at all day to day. The only time it gets tricky is when we have a fifth person visiting us, in which case someone needs to occupy the middle seat. In this case, either someone has a brief uncomfortable ride, or we take both cars, or more recently, make use of a portable booster seat for our older child. 

How about those summer road trips? For that, we bought a very popular item right now – a roof rack and a cargo box. The roof rack itself took about 2 hours to install (it would have been 1h had I known what I was doing) and by itself has a minimal effect on our gas mileage. I choose a Rhinorack vortex, which is a popular brand in Australia, but the most popular brands here in the USA are Thule and Yakima. For the box, I went with the cheapest option, which is a SportRack. The whole thing set me back about $750, which is considerably less than the cost difference between a compact car and an SUV. 

We took this camping for the first time this summer and found that all of our stuff fit – 4 sleeping bags, camp stove, air mattress and pump, and everything else. We did need to leave behind the camping chairs. A second cargo box would fit on the other side of the rack, and I’m considering getting one next year.

Driving with the cargo box is a little noisy and cut our highway gas milage by about 4mpg. At below highway speeds it does not make much difference. For two trips per year, that’s not such a big deal. I took it off the roof after going camping.

Another solution for camping is to rent a yurt – this will spare you from needing to bring a tent and a mattress with you.

That leaves the home improvement projects. My solution here has been to either get things delivered or if need be rent a truck for a day. This might be slightly inconvenient but it’s a lot better for both the environment and your bank account than lugging around an extra 3,000 pounds of metal every day when you don’t need to.

Conclusion

When you think about your own contribution to global warming, there are probably 4 big areas to worry about – your electricity usage, heating and cooling your home, your diet, and transportation. You can dramatically cut your own carbon footprint in the first 3 categories with some new technology and relatively painless choices. Transportation is a bit tougher, but here too the more responsible choice is also the most economical, at least if you’re only looking at cars powered by gasolene. 

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