SUVs are driving more emissions growth than heavy industry, aviation or shipping

SUVs were the second-largest contributor to growth in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 to last year, ahead of industries such as iron and steel, cement, trucks and aviation, said the International Energy Agency.

Emissions from SUVs are growing as consumers buy more of the fuel-guzzling cars. Image: Shahzin Shajid on Unsplash

The world’s appetite for fuel-guzzling sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, is driving growth in demand for oil as well as carbon emissions from passenger cars.

SUVs were the second-largest contributor to growth in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 to last year, according to a new analysis by the International Energy Agency. Spewing about 700 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide over the last decade, SUVs were second only to the power sector as the biggest emitter, and ahead of industries such as iron and steel, cement, trucks and aviation.

SUVs—which combine features of road-going cars and off-road vehicles, such as four-wheel drive⁠—have accounted for 60 per cent of the increase in global car fleet since 2010. There are now more than 200 million SUVs on the road.

“In 2010, 18 per cent of all car sales in the world were SUVs. Last year, more than 40 per cent of all cars sold in the world were SUVs,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said at an electric energy conference in Paris last week.

Passenger cars account for nearly a quarter of global oil demand and are a major source of emissions and air pollution. An SUV consumes about 25 per cent more energy than a medium-sized car on average and, being bigger and heavier, is harder to electrify, wrote IEA energy modellers Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos in a commentary on the agency’s website.

Greater demand for SUVs around the world, including Europe and China, was one factor that worsened the overall fuel economy of cars, negating efficiency improvements in smaller models, which saved over two million barrels of oil a day, and electric cars, which displaced about 100,000 barrels of oil a day, Cozzi and Petropoulos wrote.

According to automotive business intelligence firm Jato, China accounted for more than one-third of nearly 30 million SUVs sold in 2018, and was followed by the United States with 7.7 million. The other top markets were Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, France and India, where sales were each below a million.

The strong demand for SUVs comes amid sluggish sales of internal combustion engine cars globally, including in China and India. This may slow down the development of clean and efficient car fleets and could affect trends in future oil demand and carbon emissions, said Cozzi and Petropoulos.

The IEA’s analysis, which is part of its upcoming World Energy Outlook 2019 report, comes in the wake of a recent study by environmental group Greenpeace, which found carmakers to be one of the biggest drivers of man-made global warming, accounting for 9 per cent of emissions last year.

Carmakers have persistently marketed SUVs, promoting them as a lifestyle choice, while smaller alternatives are less heavily marketed, said Greenpeace. It found that manufacturers spent more on advertising SUVs last year than on any other segment, as these vehicles bring firms higher profit margins than smaller passenger cars.

Greenpeace analysed the climate impacts of 12 leading car companies and found Volkswagen to be the biggest climate culprit last year, followed by Renault-Nissan, Toyota, General Motors, and Hyundai-Kia. The five companies were responsible for 55 per cent of the industry’s carbon footprint. 

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