People buying SUVs are cancelling out climate gains from electric cars

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An SUV factory in Germany

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The good news is that more people bought electric cars in 2020. The bad news is that SUVs continued to grow in popularity, too. The fall in oil consumption due to the first trend was completely cancelled out by the second, say Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos at the International Energy Agency in Paris.


The growing popularity of SUVs is making it even harder to cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet climate goals. “Policymakers need to find ways to persuade consumers to choose smaller and more efficient cars,” says Petropoulos.

Oil consumption by conventional cars – excluding SUVs – is estimated to have dropped 10 per cent, or by over 1.8 million barrels a day, in 2020. Most of this fall was due to reduced travel because of the pandemic and is therefore likely to be temporary.


However, a small part of this reduction – around 40,000 barrels a day – was due to the increased share of electric vehicles, Cozzi and Petropoulos estimate in a commentary published on 15 January.

“We have seen a skyrocketing of global electric car sales in 2020,” says Petropoulos.

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Unfortunately, the numbers of SUVs increased as well. While overall car sales fell in 2020, 42 per cent of buyers chose SUVs, up 3 per cent from 2019.

Globally, there are now more than 280 million SUVs on the roads, up from less than 50 million in 2010. On average, SUVs consume 20 per cent more oil per kilometre than a medium-sized car.

The increase in SUVs in 2020 led to a rise in oil consumption that cancelled out the effect of electric cars, says Petropoulos.

Much the same is true over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2020, global CO2 emissions from conventional cars fell by nearly 350 megatonnes, due to factors such as fuel efficiency improvements as well as the switch to electric. Emissions from SUVs rose by more than 500 megatonnes.

This trend means overall emissions from all types of cars are not falling despite the growth in electric vehicles (EVs). “While the growth in EVs is encouraging, the boom in SUVs is heart-breaking,” says Glen Peters at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Norway.

There are many reasons for the growing popularity of SUVs, Petropoulos says. Rising prosperity in countries such as India and South Africa means more people are able to afford them, for instance. Some also see them as status symbols.

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SUVs are also heavily advertised by car makers, he says, whose profit margins are higher on these vehicles.

Some countries including France have introduced schemes under which more tax has to be paid on heavier cars. But Peters thinks people rich enough to afford SUVs will not be deterred by slightly higher taxes.

“It’s not necessarily a huge disincentive if people have the income,” he says.

There are now some electric SUVs available. “Hopefully in time you will see electric vehicles penetrating the SUV market,” Peters says. “But that’s going to take some time, I think.”

Even if it happens, switching to electric SUVs is not an ideal solution. It takes more resources, including bigger batteries, to build electric SUVs, says Petropoulos, and they consume around 15 per cent more electricity.

That means higher emissions unless the electricity comes entirely from renewable sources, and higher electricity demand makes it harder to green the electricity supply.

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