The unstoppable rise of the SUV is terrible news for the planet

The phenomenal rise of the SUV all started with a squabble over chicken. It was 1963 – the height of the Cold War – and US president Lyndon Johnson was fuming over a tax that France and West Germany had imposed on cheap, intensively-farmed US chicken flooding European supermarkets.

In December 1963, after months of failed negotiations, Johnson retaliated. He slapped a 25 per cent tax on imported potato starch, brandy, dextrin and, crucially, light trucks. The effect was immediate. Volkswagen stopped shipping pickups to America and Japanese firms pulled their models from the country, while American manufacturers renewed their focus on much larger vehicles. While the other taxes were later repealed, the levy on trucks was permanent.

In that single executive order, Johnson cleared the path for the SUV to dominate the roads of the United States and then the world. Buoyed by lenient fuel emissions standards and forgiving regulations, oversized cars became the new normal. Between 2010 and 2018 the number of SUVs in the world increased from 35 million to 200m. Now 40 per cent of annual car sales are SUVs – double what it was a decade ago.

These prodigious vehicles brought with them an outsized impact on the environment. With lower fuel efficiency and higher emissions than normal cars, the rise of SUVs is outweighing the benefits of the growth in electric vehicles. According to the International Energy Agency, SUVs alone were the second largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2018 – only behind the power industry.

And our taste for heavier, more polluting and – in some cases – more dangerous cars is not abating. In the US almost half of all cars sold are SUVs, while in India that figure is approaching one in three, and rising. But as automakers come under increasing pressure to curb their emissions, the future of conventional SUVs is starting to look under threat. Will the rising tide of regulation and electrification be enough to undo our environmentally disastrous love affair with SUVs?

First sold in 1983, the Jeep Cherokee is generally seen as the first car to kickstart the trend for modern SUVs. Its successors are still among the best-selling SUVs in the US

Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty

If the Chicken Wars of the 1960s laid the groundwork for the rise of the SUV, it took a real war to make their domination inevitable. In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries halted oil exports to the US and western Europe, in protest against their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Six years later, the Iranian Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq War severely disrupted oil supplies, leading to a doubling of oil prices.

While petrol stations filled with long queues, the powerful American automotive lobby was whispering in the ear of Congress, which was in the middle of devising new taxes to be placed on fuel inefficient cars. In 1978 Congress voted that cars that fell too far below federally mandated fuel targets would be hit with a heavy levy which is still in place today. But light trucks – the category into which domestic SUVs fell – were exempt from this tax, after rural and auto-manufacturing states pleaded that it would unfairly hit farmers, who used their vehicles for work.

But the law had another effect: encouraging car manufacturers to start producing SUVs, which they could charge more for, while avoiding the fuel levy. When oil prices started tumbling in the mid-1980s the last barrier to SUV ownership was gone and cars started growing bigger and less fuel efficient. By 1999 the sale of SUVs and light trucks exceeded the sale of regular passenger cars for the first time. By 2022, nine out of every ten Ford vehicles sold in the US will be an SUV or truck.

“It really is a 100 year love affair that Americans have had with their cars and SUVs are, in a way, the most extreme manifestation of that love affair,” says Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey and co-author of an upcoming book on how the public relations industry and environmental inaction in the US.

Despite being heavy and gas-guzzling – the average modern petrol SUV emits over 10 per cent more CO2 per kilometre than the average petrol car – SUVs have long been marketed as a way of getting people back to nature. SUV adverts are replete with images of cars off-roading over rugged and unexplored natural terrain, Aronczyk says. In reality, SUV ownership tends to cluster in urban areas and only one to 13 per cent of drivers ever use their vehicles for off-road driving, according to Keith Bradsher’s 2004 book High and Mighty: SUVs – The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way.

For decades, the UK resisted the rise of the SUV. “The trend for many years was for smaller, more fuel efficient cars,” says David Bailey, professor of business economics at Birmingham University’s Business School. That all changed in 2007, and the launch of the Nissan Qashqai, which offered a more svelte alternative to the hulking SUVs popular in America. “It packaged into one vehicle what people wanted: driving position, a feeling of safety […] and a lot of load carrying capacity in a shorter space,” he says.

In a little over a decade SUV sales in the UK – where the average vehicle is driven for less than 20 miles a day – grew to one in three new cars. Supercharged by personal contract purchase (PCP) deals which let buyers pay monthly fees to lease vehicles before trading them in for another car, the SUV market boomed. “From an environmental point of view it’s been a disaster, frankly,” says Bailey. “People are willing to tolerate poorer fuel efficiency and drive cars which are environmentally more damaging.”

With conventional car sales stagnating, car manufacturers are pinning their hopes on SUVs and their lucrative profit margins. Of 2019’s ten best-selling cars in the UK, three are SUVs. And while more fuel efficient and electric cars are starting to make a dent in the passenger car market, SUVs have been relatively resistant to electrification. While overall emissions from passenger cars fell by 75 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) between 2010 and 2018, emissions from SUVs grew by 544 metric tonnes – more than the increase from heavy industry, aviation, trucks or shipping.

“To be quite frank with you, we were very surprised by this finding,” says Laura Cozzi, the chief energy modeller at the International Energy Agency (IEA), who produced the recent report into SUVs’ growing impact on the planet. And, even more worryingly, the trend towards bigger, less efficient cars is no longer an American phenomenon. “It’s everywhere,” Cozzi says. “It’s true in Europe as well, it’s true in China, it’s true even in emerging economies, in places in Africa.”

And this is undoing all the environmental progress achieved through the growth in electric and more fuel efficient cars. Over the last eight years, electric cars were responsible for a 100,000 barrel per day reduction in demand for oil, while increases in fuel efficiency in smaller cars saved another two million barrels a day. But the rise of SUVs, meanwhile, accounted for an increase of 3.3 million barrels a day in oil demand. If this growth continues, the IEA report estimates that SUVs will add nearly two million barrels a day in oil demand, even accounting for changes driven by increased electrification.

Hopelessly outnumbered by SUVs, the odds are stacked against electric cars. There are currently 5.1 million electric vehicles on the planet, compared to more than 200 million SUVs. Part of the problem, says Aronczyk, is that once supersized cars start to take off in a country, consumers and manufacturers rapidly get into an SUV arms race. “When you drive on a regular old sedan on the highway, everyone else’s headlights are right in your face,” she says. “It actually is hard to drive when you are the only one left on the road in a normal car.”

With their hulking weight and high driving position, SUVs exude a feeling of safety for those behind the wheel, but it can sometimes be an illusion. In 2003, traffic data from the US government found that people driving or riding in an SUV were 11 per cent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars – thanks to their high centre of gravity and tendency to roll over in crashes. They’re even worse news for pedestrians: SUVs are around twice as likely as cars to kill pedestrians they hit. With their high bumpers, SUVs tend to hit pedestrians in the chest and knock them to the ground, rather than flipping them onto the relatively soft bonnet, as is the case in passenger cars.

Despite being less fuel efficient, more polluting and sometimes more dangerous than passenger cars, the SUV isn’t going anywhere. Growing sales in Africa and the rest of the developing world suggest that when car drivers become more affluent, they start thinking about upgrading to larger vehicles. But if we can’t kick our attachment to SUVs, how else can we get out of the environmental cul-de-sac we’re driving down?

The first fully electric car from Mercedes-Benz was a compact SUV: the Mercedes-Benz EQC

Mercedes-Benz How does Merce

The fight for cleaner SUVs has one enemy: physics. “SUVs are bigger and they are heavier,” so they require more fuel to shift them the same distance as lighter cars says ays Florent Grelier, a clean vehicles engineer at the Brussels-based campaign group Transport & Environment. And this extra weight comes with an added penalty: it makes SUVs much harder to electrify.

“Electrifying bigger crossover [SUVs] is much more difficult so you’re more likely to see [electrification] in small, compact crossovers,” says Bailey. Until now, the car industry has focused on electrifying smaller passenger cars which are easier to convert and are more attractive to environmentally-minded consumers. But Cozzi warns that would-be SUV purchasers need a way to satisfy their desire for bigger cars without being forced to plump for environmentally-damaging vehicles. “There has to be an offering for certain segments, and currently that offering is not there, or it is very limited,” she says.

But that could be about to change. Bailey says that more compact – and therefore more fuel efficient – SUVs are starting to win out over their beefier brethren. In 2019, sales of midsized SUVs declined by 8.2 per cent while small SUVs and crossovers continued to grow by 13 per cent in the first half of the year. Among the most expensive SUVs, sales of large models were down two per cent while the compact segment was more than filling the gap, growing by 18 per cent in the same period.

“The bubble has burst for big and medium-sized SUVs. The growth is going to be in small, compact crossovers” says Bailey. Manufacturers have started to take note. The first fully electric car from Mercedes-Benz is a compact SUV: the Mercedes-Benz EQC. In March 2018 Jaguar released its first foray into electric cars with the Jaguar I-PACE – a crossover SUV that won the firm its first European Car of the Year award before being declared World Car of the Year in 2019.

This shift to a smaller, more environmentally-friendly SUV isn’t exactly driven by a sudden green awakening among car manufacturers. Starting in 2020, the European Union will bring in stricter targets that set limits for the average emissions across a company’s entire fleet of cars. By 2021, the fleet-wide emission target for new cars will be set at 95 grammes of CO2 per kilometre. The most popular SUV in the UK – which is still the Nissan Qashqai – has CO2 emissions of 106 grammes per kilometre.

For manufacturers whose average fleet emissions exceed these targets, heavy fines await. From 2019, the penalty was set at €95 (£80) per gram of CO2 per kilometre for every car registered. Manufacturers who release zero- or low-emission cars will also be given extra credits to help them towards their emission targets, incentivising manufacturers to swap their fuel-inefficient cars for more climate-friendly models.

But electrifying SUVs isn’t just about curbing the worst excesses of the dirtiest part of the automotive industry. The very success of electric vehicles may hinge on the sector. “You can’t really see electric vehicles taking off unless they include SUVs,” says Bailey. “So maybe getting people into electric cars is via small and compact SUVs.”

Which brings us to the Cybertruck. On November 25 at a bizarre event in a design studio just outside of Los Angeles, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled its tank-like pickup truck. Things did not exactly go to plan, with the truck’s supposedly unbreakable windows shattering on stage when a Tesla employee hit them with a metal ball in a demonstration gone awry. Despite attracting plenty of ridicule, a week after the trapezoid truck was unveiled, Musk tweeted suggesting that Tesla had already received 250,000 pre-orders for the vehicles. The Tesla Model X – an all-electric SUV that has been on sale since 2015 – has so far sold more than 100,000 units.

Although the success of the Cybertruck is far from guaranteed – Tesla is yet to commit to a launch date – the hulking pickup is enticing in one way: it suggests that it is possible to build electric cars that don’t compromise on heft and presence. For decades, the US car lobby has positioned fuel-economy regulations as an infringement on citizen’s rights to choose to drive gas-guzzling cars (nevermind their right to a stable, low-pollution climate), yet the rise of electric SUVs could sever the link between vehicle size and emissions for good.

But the clock is ticking. Transport is Europe’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions and oil consumption in the EU is rising at its fastest pace since 2001. The European Commission has set the EU the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 while the UK has set itself a legally-binding goal to bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

This doesn’t give the car industry long to change its game plan for good. The average age of a passenger vehicle in the EU is 11 years – so cars with internal combustion engines will have to be pulled off sale by 2035 if the EU is to hit its 2050 targets, while the UK government has set a slightly less ambitious target of 2040. Despite this, Bailey is hoping that market forces take hold and – as is happening with renewable energy – electric cars will come to dominate the sector and force SUVs to leave their old, polluting ways behind for good. “In a sense, 2040 is irrelevant,” he says. “It’s a bit like saying we’ll ban the steam engine. We’ll have moved on already by then.”

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