Diarmaid Ferriter: Can celebrity SUV virtue waving please cease?

I roll my eyes when I look at their cost and the notion that they represent sustainability

TV chef Donal Skehan is fronting his latest series while enthusing about how suitable the Irish climate is for high-quality organic food as clean air, rich soil and plenty of rain make for a food lover’s paradise.

Skehan, as he reminds us, is “all about flavours”. He’s also all about the Land Rover Discovery Sport Plug-in-Hybrid of which he is a brand ambassador.

He could not be happier with this vehicle: “I’m a big believer in making small changes to help our environment and I’m happy to be driving a Land Rover plug-in hybrid which delivers zero emissions when driving in electric mode . . . I can drive in electric mode for up to 55km.”

In an interview to accompany the promotion of this SUV Skehan mentions that filming his TV series involved travelling around Ireland: “So I leave the house here in Dublin and head to Dingle and I am in the car for several hours . . . knowing that a portion of that has been powered electrically and not by fossil fuel is quite rewarding”.


Electric and hybrid vehicles undoubtedly have a role to play in decarbonisation, but there is also the danger of them being used as a smokescreen

The journey from Howth, where Skehan lives, to Dingle, is 363km: “I have the back-up of the petrol engine for longer journeys,” he helpfully reminds us.

Skehan does not want to patronise us. He says he understands people can feel talked down to about climate issues and “roll their eyes when they’re being professed to about sustainability . . . But for me it comes down to the small changes we make in our day-to-day life”.

Gormless celebrities?

I roll my eyes when I’m being “professed to” that hybrid SUVs are models of climate change virtue.

I roll my eyes at the series of advertisements of which Skehan is a part of: “Sparking Change with Land Rover”, which involves him and other celebrities – Diarmuid Gavin, Brian O’Driscoll and Kathryn Thomas – raving about these vehicles and the difference they are supposedly making. I roll my eyes when I look at their cost – ranging from €60,000 to €72,000 – and the notion that they represent sustainability. I roll my eyes when I think about what goes in to the making of them: some weigh well over two tons. I roll my eyes when one of these celebrities says the recent and alarming UN climate change report “stops you in your tracks”.

It doesn’t, however, stop them promoting and driving these vehicles. Are we really to believe that their size and what goes into their making is balanced out by the nod to a modicum of electricity?

Last month, Transport and Environment, a European, non-profit NGO that campaigns for clean transport and is politically unaligned, noted the boasting at the Munich international motor show as carmakers unveiled their latest electric models, but maintained that “behind all the talk of sustainability, engine-driven SUVs are the fastest growing car segment”.

Two-thirds of the vehicles on display were electric but “behind these sermons on ‘sustainable mobility’, sales data paint a different picture. While electric vehicle sales continue to grow, they are being worryingly outpaced by SUVs, which are still primarily polluting, engine-driven cars . . . In just over 10 years SUVs went from a peripheral 10 per cent of sales to nearly half of all car sales in Europe today (45 per cent).”

Another of its reports, from 2018, shows that the weight of cars sold in Europe in the previous 15 years grew by 10 per cent on average, from 1,268kg to 1,392kg.

Car dependency

We have had no shortage of urgent reminders that decarbonising the Irish economy needs to involve a drastic reduction in car dependency. This summer the Oireachtas joint committee on environment and climate action noted “Ireland has the fourth-highest level of transport emissions per capita in Europe and the transport sector is responsible for around 20 per cent of our overall CO2 emissions, with private cars being the largest contributors to transport emissions. Considering projected population growth and, in turn, economic growth in the coming decades, Ireland will face a significant challenge in decarbonisation of the transport sector.”

In 2019, the Climate Change Advisory Council underlined the need for cost-effective and carbon-efficient transport options for passengers through provision of accessible, affordable and reliable public transport instead of private car use. The National Development Plan (NDP) of 2018 underlined that “achieving this long-term vision will require fundamental societal transformation and, more immediately, the allocation of resources and sustained policy and behavioural change”.

The recently unveiled and updated NDP focused much attention on the Government commitment to a two-to-one ratio favouring public transport over roads, though whether that balance will be sustained, given the political fear of suggesting certain road plans might have to be abandoned, remains unclear.

Electric and hybrid vehicles undoubtedly have a role to play in decarbonisation, but there is also the danger of them being used as a smokescreen to hide the continued thriving of the large, high pollutant vehicle.

Get on yer bike Donal!