Growing demand for SUVs was the second largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions from 2010 to 2018, an analysis has found.
In that period, SUVs doubled their global market share from 17% to 39% and their annual emissions rose to more than 700 megatonnes of CO2, more than the yearly total emissions of the UK and the Netherlands combined.
No energy sector except power drove a larger increase in carbon emissions, putting SUVs ahead of heavy industry (including iron, steel, cement and aluminium), aviation and shipping.
“We were quite surprised by this result ourselves,” said Laura Cozzi, the chief energy modeller of the International Energy Agency, which produced the report.
The recent dramatic shift towards heavier SUVs has offset both efficiency improvements in smaller cars and carbon savings from electric vehicles.
As the global fleet of SUVs has grown, emissions from the vehicles have increased more than fourfold in eight years. If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.
“An SUV is bigger, it’s heavier, the aerodynamics are poor, so as a result you get more CO2,” said Florent Grelier from the campaign group Transport & Environment.
SUVs started to become popular in the 1980s, and often earned nicknames such as “Chelsea tractor” as a result of the wealthy city suburbs they became associated with. Since then, sales have continued to rise, and the vehicles are often marketed as a status symbol.
However, opposition to SUVs in cities is also rising. Recent protests in Berlin demanded a ban on the vehicles after a driver hit and killed four pedestrians, while activists at a Frankfurt motor show protested against the vehicles’ impact on the climate. SUVs are significantly more likely to kill pedestrians in crashes, and although they are often marketed as safer, those driving them are 11% more likely to die in a crash than people in normal cars.
Cozzi said a number of factors were driving the demand for bigger cars. While perceptions of heightened safety or increased social status could play a role at the individual level, she also pointed towards manufacturers’ changing offering.
She said the difficult market situation led carmakers to look for the most profitable models in their ranges.
“There is a really big need for car manufacturers to find the margins wherever it is possible, and the SUV segment seems to be one of those places,” she said.