In 2023, sales of SUVs reached a new high, comprising half of all new cars sold globally, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Experts have warned that the increasing popularity of these large, heavy vehicles is significantly contributing to the rise in carbon emissions, which exacerbate global warming.

The IEA’s analysis highlighted that the surge in SUV emissions accounted for 20% of the global CO2 increase in 2023, positioning these vehicles as a major factor in the escalating climate crisis. Remarkably, if SUVs were a country, they would rank as the world’s fifth-largest emitter of CO2, surpassing the emissions of both Japan and Germany.

Despite the growing need for urgent emission reductions due to climate-induced extreme weather, emissions from the global transport sector have climbed rapidly in recent years, with the exception of a temporary dip during the Covid pandemic. In 2023, SUV sales soared by 15%, while sales of conventional cars increased by only 3%.

The IEA attributed the SUV boom to “the appeal of SUVs as a status symbol”, aggressive marketing by automakers, and a perception of greater comfort. Additionally, SUVs pose higher risks to pedestrians in collisions due to their taller front ends and occupy more urban space than regular cars.

While about 20% of the new SUVs sold in 2023 were either fully electric or plug-in hybrids, the IEA noted that these larger vehicles require bigger batteries. This places additional strain on the supply of critical minerals and demands more electricity for operation.

Petrol and diesel cars have become more fuel-efficient. But the IEA’s Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos, who did the analysis, said: “The trend toward heavier and less efficient vehicles such as SUVs has largely nullified the improvements achieved in recent decades.”

James Nix, at the thinktank Transport and Environment (T&E), said: “Carmakers in pursuit of higher margins know only one direction: bigger and heavier. New cars are getting wider every year, and are on track to become as wide as buses and trucks. Europe will go the way of North America unless lawmakers step in with EU width limits and national taxes and parking charges which discourage big SUVs.”

There were over 360 million SUVs on the roads worldwide in 2023, generating 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions—a 10% increase from 2022. Consequently, global oil consumption rose by 600,000 barrels per day, contributing to over a quarter of the total growth in oil demand. SUVs weigh 200-300kg more than the average medium-sized car and emit about 20% more CO2.

In wealthy countries, nearly 20 million new SUVs were sold in 2023, surpassing a market share of 50% for the first time. Globally, 48% of new cars sold were SUVs, and one in four cars on the road today is an SUV, according to the IEA. Notably, 55% of electric cars sold in 2023 were SUVs.

“Shifting from fossil-fuelled cars to electric vehicles is a key strategy for reaching international energy and climate goals,” Cozzi and Petropoulos said. But they said using fewer materials to produce cars was also “essential for a sustainable future”.

Some countries, such as France, Norway, and Ireland, are attempting to curb the demand for SUVs. Paris, for example, has tripled parking charges for these large vehicles. In March, Transport & Environment (T&E) described the UK as a “tax haven” for polluting SUVs, noting that vehicle excise duty for these cars in the first year is much lower compared to other countries. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, stated in February that he would monitor the effectiveness of the Paris measures.



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