If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions. So, isn’t it time for Lewes to give these gas-guzzlers the boot? asks Julia Waterlow.

The conventional car market has been declining worldwide.  Global sales of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars fell by around 2% to under 87 million in 2018, the first drop since the 2008 recession. This trend continued in 2019.

You might have thought this was the beginning of the end for the “ICE age.” However, a more silent structural change may put this conclusion into question: consumers are buying ever-larger and less fuel-efficient cars, known as Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs).

In 2010, fewer than 20% of cars sold were an SUV; today it’s 40%. “As a result, there are now over 200 million SUVs around the world, up from about 35 million in 2010,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in a comprehensive study in 2019.

Climate change’s big contributor

As a consequence, SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global COemissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation). The annual emissions from SUVs have risen to more than 700 megatonnes of CO2 – that’s more than the yearly total emissions of the UK and the Netherlands combined.

The preference for heavier SUVs has offset fuel-efficiency improvements in smaller cars and carbon savings from the growing popularity of electric cars  “If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions,” reported The Guardian.

The problem is 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 2 million barrels of oil a day since the start of the decade, 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 another 2 million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, completely offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.

Big cars, small towns

Another issue is size, particularly in British towns and villages with their narrow streets and small parking spaces. Lewes (and Alfriston where I was trying to cross the road the other day) is a classic example of where SUVs are totally inappropriate.  And there is the parking problem – it is getting more and more difficult to squeeze into our parking spaces and yet many of those driving these cars moan about there not being enough parking in Lewes.  Get a smaller car I would say and let’s increase the number of parking spaces.

Some people argue they feel safer in a vehicle where they sit high above the road, but the raised center of gravity actually makes SUVs more prone to rollovers. Some people want an SUV because they believe that an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive option will make them safer in bad weather. In reality, many drivers do not need this expensive and fuel-economy-lowering feature, and would be better off with front-wheel-drive and good tyres.

Go smaller – and go electric

People often buy vehicles for reasons that have very little to do with functionality. For many people, an SUV is a status symbol.  But surely an electric car would be one too?

While a plug-in SUV is certainly better for the climate than a gasoline-powered model, auto-makers aren’t introducing these vehicles because they’re committed to climate action. They’re simply trying to capitalize on the popularity of SUVs, and to make people feel virtuous.  A smaller electric vehicle would be far better.

We can make a difference: we can buck the SUV trend and choose a greener alternative. And we can encourage friends, colleagues and family members to do likewise. Not only are electric vehicles safer and better for the environment, they’re also much cheaper to run. According to Which? magazine, SUVs cost around £400 more per year to run than a standard car, while an EV costs £800 less than a standard car.

In these tough economic times, saying No to SUVs is good for your wallet as well as the planet – and could make our town just a little more  pleasant to be in.

More information on electric cars