SUVs ‘massively’ undermine efforts to decarbonise transport, says report 

New report suggests energy demand and CO2 emissions would have fallen by 30% between 2010 and 2022 if not for the growing popularity, size and weight of sports utility vehicles (SUVs). 

SUVs are popular with drivers. They’re big, robust-looking cars, the driver seated in a high position with a commanding view of the road. This all provides a sense is of stability and safety (though in fact SUVs can be more likely to roll over in accidents than smaller, lower vehicles).

white and black car on black asphalt road

Photo by Nikolay Dukov

SUVs are also popular with manufacturers as they can be sold at a premium for proportionally lower production costs. As a result, in 2022 sales of SUVs overtook those of conventional cars for the first time – accounting for 51% of all sales.  

But larger vehicles tend to need more fuel and so produce more emissions such as CO2. Their popularity may also discourage manufacturers and buyers from making the switch to zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs). EVs also use three to six times less energy than internal combustion engine vehicles to travel the same distance. 

Effectively, the popularity of SUVs is having a devastating impact on efforts to decarbonise transport, improve air quality in the places we live and tackle climate change more widely. 

That’s the conclusion of a new report by Global Fuel Economy Initiative, ‘Trends in the global vehicle fleet – managing the SUV shift and the EV transition’, supported by the FIA Foundation. It says that the rise in demand for SUVs has seen the average weight of light-duty vehicles (LDVs) increase to the current all-time high exceeding 1.5 tonnes, while the average size (or ‘footprint’) of a new car has also peaked at some 4.2 m2. 

Between 2020 and 2022, there was an average 4.2% reduction in the global annual rate of energy intensity in light-duty vehicles (LDV). According to the report, the rapid acceleration in energy efficiency and direct CO2 emission reductions are mainly due to the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), which reached 15% of global new car sales in 2022 and have kept strong market shares in 2023. That’s positive – yet a long way behind the figure for EVs. 

This link is enforced by the fact that markets with strong EV growth such as China and across Europe saw the most significant annual energy efficiency improvements – close to 6%. Lower market uptake of EVs resulted in significantly lower yearly improvement rates: in North America, that was by just 1.6%. 

The report therefore calls on governments to set caps on vehicle size in an aim to limit and then reverse this increasing shift to SUVs, in favour of increasing emphasis on EVs and energy-saving technologies. The report also calls for more stringent environmental and safety regulations on high-use vehicles such as company cars, government fleets, taxis and car-sharing services. Other recommendations include investment in renewables, ending subsidies for fossil fuels and a scheme for carbon pricing. Legislation to increase the deployment of EV chargepoints and to provide more affordable access to EVs is also suggested.  

Sheila Watson, Deputy Director of the FIA Foundation, says: ‘Growing vehicle size is a huge problem which is threatening many aspects of sustainable mobility, from climate to road safety. This report shows that we must move away from these mega-vehicles if we are to achieve the GFEI goal of doubling the fuel efficiency of cars by 2030. Vehicle size matters – and in this case bigger is definitely not better.’ 

Dan Sperling, Founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, adds: ‘Reversing the trend toward bigger and heavier vehicles is key to achieving more sustainable mobility. This applies also for electric mobility, to make the market for EVs more equitable and inclusive—and to reduce the need for critical minerals and more electricity.’

In related news:

SUV drivers in Kensington & Chelsea must pay more, say campaigners

£2m for local transport decarbonisation projects

Self-driving bus trial in Milton Keynes


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