Why are SUVs so bad for the environment?

5 Dec 2019
3 min read

Sports utility vehicles are now the second biggest contributor to global emissions increases.

There’s been a huge surge in the popularity of SUVs (sports utility vehicles) in recent times. A decade ago they made up just 7% of the new car market – today that figure sits at 36%, and is expected to rise to 40% by 2021. There are now 200 million SUVs on roads around the world, and sales continue to grow despite overall stagnation in the car market – a record 35 million were sold last year alone.

This type of car finds favour with motorists for a variety of reasons, but as relatively heavy and unaerodynamic vehicles, their environmental footprint is not one of them. According to research from the International Energy Agency (IEA), growing demand for SUVs was the second largest contributor to the increase in global emissions from 2010 to 2018, with their annual emissions rising to more than 700 megatonnes of CO2 – that’s more than the yearly total emissions of the UK and the Netherlands combined. Furthermore, if SUV drivers were a nation, they’d rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.

On top of that, SUVs are gas guzzlers, consuming about a quarter more energy than medium-sized cars. While energy efficiency improvements in smaller cars have saved over two million barrels of oil a day since the start of the decade, and electric vehicles have displaced some 100,000 barrels a day, SUVs were exclusively responsible for the 3.3 million barrels a day growth in oil demand in passenger cars during that same period. As the IEA notes, if consumer appetite for SUVs continues to grow at a similar pace seen in the last decade, SUVs will add nearly two million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, completely offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.

Add to this the fact that SUVs have a fairly appalling safety rating – a person is 11% more likely to die in an SUV than a regular saloon, and their height makes them twice as likely to roll in crashes and twice as likely to kill pedestrians – you can see there’s a strong argument against SUV adoption. And yet their popularity goes unabated due to heavy marketing from the car industry due to high profit margins.

But this could soon change, thanks largely to looming fleet emissions targets in Europe. Since 2009, EU legislation has set emission reduction targets for new cars – the first target has applied since 2015, with the next, much stricter target coming into force next year. From 1st January 2020, manufacturers must limit CO2 to 95g per kilometre for 95% of the cars they make. From 2021, this target will apply to all new cars.

If they don’t meet these requirements, they’ll face hefty penalties. Will they be substantial enough to act as a deterrent? Well, until 2018 the penalty for exceeding the target by just one g/km was €5, with €15 for the second g/km, €25 for the third g/km and €95 for each subsequent g/km. From 2019 onwards, the penalty is €95 for every g/km exceeded, whether that’s the first or fortieth – those can add up to big numbers across a manufacturer’s fleet.

To encourage carmakers away from environmentally-unfriendly gas guzzlers, the EU also offers manufacturers emissions credits for eco-innovations, plus additional incentives for producing zero and low-emission vehicles.  

However, we have the power to enact change too, simply by bucking the SUV trend and choosing a greener alternative. Not only are electric vehicles safer and better for the environment, they’re also much cheaper to run. According to Which?, SUVs cost around £400 more per year to run than a standard car, while an EV costs £800 less than a standard car.

All petrol and diesel cars are bad news for the planet, but SUVs are having a particularly damning impact. EVs are cheaper, safer and much greener, so choosing your next car should be a no-brainer.


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