Governments should ban auto ads and put warning labels on cars

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Rush hour traffic in Toronto. Photo: Michael Gil/Wikimedia Commons

Cars are leading sources of carbon emissions and major drivers of climate change. If we collectively want to address climate breakdown, reducing the use of oil for transport is a critical place to start.

Fossil fuel use is having immense negative impacts on our health and well-being. Temperatures in countries such as the U.S. and Australia now range freakishly between -50 and 50 degrees Celsius. Scientists warn that:

"Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now higher than they have been on Earth for millions of years. Modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, so we have no historical or even evolutionary experience of the climate that we are creating."

Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that fossil fuel pollutants already in the atmosphere "persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system." Global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high in 2018.

There are some glimmers of hope for reversing this trend. Progress is being made in the energy sector as renewables like water, wind, and solar power come on line. IPCC scientists foresee a decreasing carbon intensity of the industry and buildings sectors over the next two decades. But they predict that the carbon intensity of transport will be the highest of any sector by 2040 due to its high reliance on oil-based fuels. Transport has witnessed the fastest emissions growth of any sector in the past half-century. Transport emissions currently increase 2.5 per cent annually, year after year.

Canada should lead the way by implementing strong and effective incentives to reduce the use of oil for transport, as it has on another global health crisis: tobacco use.

The Tobacco Act came into effect in 1997. It provides "a legislative response to a national public health problem of substantial and pressing concern… to protect the health of Canadians in light of conclusive evidence implicating tobacco use in the incidence of numerous debilitating and fatal diseases." 

The Act restricts cigarette advertising, bans tobacco company sponsorships of sporting events, and requires warning labels on cigarette packs with messages such as "cigarette addiction affects generations." In 2001 Canada became the first country to put graphic pictorial health warnings -- such as images of cancers and dying smokers -- on cigarette packs. Research proves their effectiveness. In 2007, the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed companies' arguments that health warnings like these violated their right to freedom of expression. 

Cars should also have health warnings: "Use of this product may make the Earth uninhabitable." "Auto exhaust causes respiratory disease, cancer and birth defects." Pictorial warnings could include diseased organs, auto wrecks, parched landscapes and destroyed coastal communities.

Auto advertisements should be banned. Like cigarette ads, they create perverse incentives to engage in dangerous acts such as stunt driving, contributing to fatal collisions. Auto ads tend to be highly misleading. They promise enjoyable driving experiences, higher social status and access to natural settings. But where are the traffic lights and stop signs? The gas-guzzling and fumes? Or choked roadways dominated by strip malls and fast food joints?

Governments issue drivers' licences. They build and maintain roads at public expense and provide billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies. They should mitigate the immense harm cars are doing to people and the planet by placing tight legal restrictions on auto industry ads and sponsorships, and putting warning labels on cars.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Michael Gil/Wikimedia Commons

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