According to the IEA, SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles) emission have increased by 0,5% the past year. This wouldn’t be astonishing normally, however, 2020 was characterized by a drastic emission fall across all the other sectors of the economy. Early estimations show that overall emissions have fallen by 7% last year: the biggest drop since the industrial revolution, five times more than the post–global finance crises drop in 2009. Moreover, in 2020 oil use by other types of cars was reduced by 10% (1.8 mb/d).
The increasing preference for SUVs completely cancelled out the loss in activity due to the pandemic related restrictions. As a result, SUVs consumed an average of 5.5 million barrels per day in 2020 and took 39% of the market share (roughly 3% more than the previous year) in the European Union. This trend has a detrimental effect on fuel consumption, as SUVs consume over 10% more than medium-sized cars in Europe and 20% worldwide.
The latest data
The increase in sales and emissions of SUVs is not a 2020 phenomenon. Over the last decade, emissions from SUVs have tripled, reaching the same level as the entire maritime industry, international shipping included.
In 2020, a clear increase in the sales of Electric Vehicles (EVs) was registered, despite the 14% drop in car sales. Particularly in Europe, the sales of EVs in the first months of 2020 were nearly twice as high as the year before, reaching about than 4% of the cars’ market share in the first three quarters of 2020 across the European car market. Moreover, Norway reached over 50% electric in new car sales. An increase in the number of available electric SUV options have also been observed, however, not a similar uptake can be seen.
On average, an electric SUV needs a battery with 22% more capacity than a medium-sized car. This entails collateral issues both in the production process, requiring additional raw materials and technologies, and in daily usage, requiring more power to be recharged. Therefore, a shift to smaller cars would be beneficial also in the transition from ICE to electric mobility.
Preventing pollution with policies
Policies have a role in shaping the size of vehicles. Historically, beyond safety and aesthetic concerns, the increasing size of cars have been driven by badly designed efficiency standards. More forgiving fuel standards for heavier cars, with a bigger footprint, have incentivised manufacturers to move towards bigger cars, as they would require less efficiency investment.
In their current form, European fuel standards retain vehicle weight as the underlying parameter defining the CO2 emission value allowed for a company. Therefore, an increment of the average car weight leads automatically to an increase in the average CO2 emission allowed. The factor used allows 3.33 g/km of extra CO2 emissions for every additional 100 kg. Similarly, for vans (light–duty commercial vehicles) 9.6 g/km is allowed for every additional 100 kg.
This affects the targets themselves, for instance, the target for commercial vehicles is set at 147 g/km of CO2 for 2020. However, this is calculated assuming an average vehicle weight of 1,706 kg. Nevertheless, the real average is roughly 100 kg more, meaning that the target, in reality, is only at 158 g/km.
Therefore, in the upcoming revision of the light–duty vehicle standards, it will be crucial to design standards that disincentivise the uptake of bigger cars, and not vice versa. Moreover, complementary measures to reverse the growing size of vehicles should be taken. For instance, in France a taxation system based on the weight of the car has been introduced, while in Norway registration tax is calculated both on CO2 emissions and on weight. Similar measures could be introduced by other governments to incentivise the use of smaller cars, which not only have significant benefits related to their emissions but also reduce parking and traffic issues.