Rising SUV sales make it more difficult to meet climate targets

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SUV sales soared in 2022, a trend that will make it much harder to meet global climate goals, experts say. And while car buyers flocked to electric SUVs along with their gas-guzzling counterparts, super-sized EVs pose environmental challenges of their own.

Bigger is the opposite of better

Nevertheless, by 2022 SUVs have surpassed their smaller counterparts. While car sales overall fell about 0.5 percent last year, SUV sales grew 3 percent. They made up a whopping 46 percent of global car sales.

That popularity means more pollution. Carbon dioxide emissions from SUVs around the world are about to hit a huge threshold: nearly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to a recent analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA). By comparison, that’s almost twice as much climate pollution as the UK pumped out in 2021. While oil demand for non-SUV passenger cars remained flat between 2021 and 2022, global SUV oil consumption grew by 500,000 barrels per day.

To prevent climate change from getting significantly worse, those numbers need to drop drastically. To meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, countries must halve their climate pollution by the end of the decade and reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Transport is a major source of climate pollution; it is responsible for about a quarter of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. To meet the goals of the Paris agreement, about 60 percent of vehicles sold in 2030 should be electric, the IEA has previously mapped.

Many more people are buying electric vehicles – sales will increase by 60 percent by 2022. And for the first time ever, electric SUVs made up just over half of all EVs sold last year. It’s no wonder, as automakers are adding far more electric SUVs to their lineups. About 55 percent of the more than 400 electric car models available are SUVs.

Electric SUVs in particular complicate the transition to clean energy

A caveat is that electric SUVs in particular make the transition to clean energy more difficult. Automakers are scrambling to get enough raw materials for electric cars, which are typically made with about six times as many minerals as a conventional car. Essential minerals needed to make lithium-ion batteries are limited and concentrated in a handful of places, leaving the supply chain vulnerable to political and economic volatility. If you make a larger vehicle, you also increase those problems.

Keep in mind that electric vehicles are not a panacea for transportation pollution. EVs still generate particulate pollution through tire, brake and road wear, which is very bad for air quality. Heavier cars tend to create more of this type of pollution. Regular EVs are already often heavier than gas-powered cars, and SUVs exacerbate this problem again.

All in all, if automakers downsize their vehicles, there will be major environmental benefits. It’s an easy way to relieve pressure on supply chains while minimizing vehicle pollution as much as possible.

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