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10 February 2022

SUVs have the carbon footprint of a major industrial nation

The market for the cars is booming despite campaigns to reduce emissions.

By Nick Ferris

Talk of sustainability is everywhere — whether in the installation of heat pumps in our homes, the expanding meat-free sections in our supermarkets, or in the cries of “climate hypocrisy” whenever a politician takes a private jet. One area seemingly unaffected by the green movement, however, is in the high-end sports utility vehicle (SUV) market.

Global SUV sales have increased from around 10 million in 2010 to more than 30 million in 2021, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA). In terms of market share, this translates into growth from 16.5 per cent of the market in 2010 to 45.9 per cent in 2021. While there was a slight drop in sales in 2020, 2021 was a record year for the market, with growth of 10 per cent.

The problem with typical, non-electric SUVs is that they produce 25 per cent more carbon emissions on average than a medium-sized car. The growth in the SUV market means that, if these so-called “Chelsea tractors” were a country, the 900 million tonnes of carbon they emit each year would make them the sixth biggest emitter in the world, above industrial powerhouses such as Germany and South Korea. 

China overtook the US as the biggest SUV market in 2013, but the US remains a far bigger market on a per capita basis. In 2021, one SUV was sold per every 38 US citizens, compared with one per 125 citizens in China. The IEA also points out that SUVs represented three-quarters of all passenger vehicles in the US and Canada in 2019, while the Chinese SUV market is stagnating, mainly due to a large rise in small electric car sales.

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