|Artist: Dave Derret|
(used with permission)
Autobesity is not good for the Earth’s health.
A comment relating to a recent “New Yorker” article1 on SUVs suggesting that that this was a case of “car obesity” prompted me to coin the word autobesity to label one of the world’s most pressing environmental health problems.
A standard measurement of how underweight or overweight a person is uses the Body Mass Index (BMI.)2 The most extreme score used to be known as morbid obesity (although now it is referred to by the less emotive term obese (class III).)
If such a measurement were to be applied to our use of vehicles (Perhaps an AMI – Automobile Mass Index) then we would have to make the diagnosis that we are suffering morbid autobesity.
Autobesity has become steadily worse since WW2, and morbidly so in the past 7 years. In 2015 there were 618 million vehicles in the world. In the seven years since then that figure has more than doubled to an estimated 1,446 million (yes! – that is 1.446 billion.)3 We went from autobese to extremely autobese to morbidly autobese in just a few years.4
Autobesity (as with human obesity) carries with it harmful health outcomes. As we know, obesity in humans is a risk factor for clogged arteries.
So too, it is with autobesity. Automotive arteries (roads, parking, and right-of-ways (ROWs)) get clogged. Unlike a human body though, instead of removing the blockages, more arteries get built. In rich nations of the world the amount of land relinquished to roads, parking, and ROWs is around 2% of the total land area. In cities, the figure is substantial. New York has 22% of its land area devoted to roads and parking. In London the proportion is 23%, Tokyo 24%, and 25% in Paris. Between one-fifth and one quarter of the land in the world’s major cities is set aside for automobiles.
That is autobesity.
Other harmful effects of autobesity are well known, such as the poisons and pollution emitted from vehicle exhausts – i.e. CO2, nitrous oxides, benzene, fine and ultra-fine particulates etc.
What may be less well known, however, is that these emissions (due mainly to increased exhaust regulations around the world) are not the most harmful feature of vehicle use.
Tyre wear is responsible for around 2,000 times more particulate pollution than are exhausts. These particulates include Greenhouse Gases (GHGs)5 and toxic compounds (including carcinogens.) These seep into all parts of the body of the earth – air, water, and soil.6
As with human obesity, the weight of the vehicle contributes to this problem. To add to the issue of soaring numbers of automobiles, the weight of automobiles has also increased. In 1908, when Henry Ford began producing the Model T Ford, the heaviest of his vehicles weighed 750 kg. The average vehicle weight today is 1,800 kg. What is more, vehicles are getting heavier (contributing further to tyre wear), and likely to put on even more weight if EVs (Electric Vehicles) become more prevalent (as EV proponents predict and promote.)
Because of the battery in an EV, an average EV weighs around 30% more than an equivalent fossil-fuelled vehicle. In terms of our autobesity, EVs are not helping.7
Although EVs reached 10% of global vehicle sales in 2022, they are not replacing vehicle stock – but adding to it. Between 2015 and 2020 the total number of EVs in the world increased from less than one million to 10.2 million. Impressive – maybe? However, in the same period the total number of vehicles in the world rose from 618 million to over 1,100 million. That is just one EV for every 50 or so conventional vehicles.
What Are We Doing About Our Autobesity?
Not much, is the short answer.
A doctor, cardiologist, or other medical professional will usually prescribe a combination of diet and exercise for a person suffering obesity.
Shouldn’t we adopt a similar regime with autobesity?
But we aren’t. A significant proportion of vehicle trips are short, very short. In the U.S. 60% of all car trips are less than 10km in length. In Australian cities the distance varies from city to city, with between 30% - 60% being less then 5km in length. Melbourne takes the lack of exercise to the extreme, with 47% of vehicle trips being less than 2.5km long.8
All these distances are easily achieved by walking or using a bicycle.
Our autobesity is now morbid and epidemic (at least in the rich nations,) so much so that (as with obesity) it is propelled by addictive mechanisms. Replacing one type of vehicle with another (EV, hybrid, hydrogen fuelled, or whatever) will not reduce our addiction, and hence autobesity will continue to harm the planet.
Many working in the addiction field tell us that abstinence is a crucial factor in helping addicts to overcome their addiction and then maintaining a more healthy lifestyle.
It is now clear that autobesity is no different.
Only total auto-abstinence will help to heal the harm caused by autobesity.
1. Elizabeth Kolbert, Why S.U.V.s are Still a Huge Environmental Problem¸ The New Yorker, 3 March 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/why-suvs-are-still-a-huge-environmentalproblem?fbclid=IwAR1XA_xJ0BBu5lQiV6tx17vdNdokwBC1kXVsrMRvq3VvrgHT7OCxJQS_umo accessed 13 March 2023
2. A person’s BMI is calculated by dividing their weight (in kg) by the square of their height (in metres.
3. Source: PD Insurance, 22 April 2022, https://www.pd.com.au/blogs/how-many-cars-in-the-world/ accessed 13 March 2023
4. If you line up all the world’s vehicles bumper-to-bumper around the Earth’s equator they would encircle the Earth more than 160 times!
5. Laura Kokko, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Tyre Production, M.Sc. thesis, Tampere University of Technology, February 2017
7. Research at a Netherlands University shows that EVs are contributing significantly to the deterioration of road surfaces. https://www.brusselstimes.com/61738/heavier-electric-cars-wear-out-roads-faster accessed 13 March 2023
8. https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au//media/ProgramsandProjects/PlanningHealthyEnvironments/Attachments/vhtransch3.pdf?la=en&hash=BD49C15BA932B97CF11275C5EE7CEA85A17176F3 accessed 14 March 2023. Although this paper is from 1999, there is little reason to believe that the proportions have changed. If anything, personal observation suggests the figure may now be more dire.