Global SUV fleet produces more carbon emissions than most countries

Gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles might be incredibly popular, but their collective contribution to climate change outweighs the output of entire nations.
John Loeffler
Traffic on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco
Traffic on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco


We all know that sport utility vehicles aren't the most ecologically friendly cars you can drive, but their environmental impact is possibly greater than many realize.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, the global fleet of 330 million SUVs produces more carbon emissions on its own than the combined carbon emission output of entire nations.

"A strong increase in sales of electric models was not enough to prevent carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from SUVs worldwide reaching almost 1 billion tonnes in 2022," the report said.

"Between 2021 and 2022, oil use in conventional cars, excluding SUVs, remained roughly the same, but the oil consumption of SUVs globally increased by 500 000 barrels per day, accounting for one-third of the total growth in oil demand," the report goes on to say. "On average, SUVs consume around 20% more oil than an average medium-size non-SUV car. The combustion-related CO2 emissions of SUVs increased by nearly 70 million tonnes in 2022."

Burning fossil fuels is a major driver of global climate change, and the increase in sales of gas-powered SUVs, which have considerably lower fuel efficiency than smaller, lighter cars, is definitely a major obstacle to meeting the carbon reduction goals laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Electric SUV growth is a potential bright spot, though not without complications of its own

The new report wasn't all doom-and-gloom though, and there is a source of optimism in the IEA's findings: the rise of the electric SUV.

The move to electric vehicles like Tesla's Model 3 and the Chevrolet Volt is a major piece of addressing the climate crisis, so a rise in electric SUVs is naturally a good thing as far as reducing the number of gas-burning SUVs on the road.

It's not as straightforward as just replacing one for the other, however, as a surge in demand for electric vehicles broadly is going to put pressure on the supply of rare Earth minerals needed for electric car batteries and electronics like cobalt and lithium.

"Rapidly increasing the number of electric cars on the road in place of conventional cars is a key part of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century," the report said. "At the same time, SUVs require larger batteries to power them, so a growing electric SUV market would impose additional pressure on battery supply chains and further increase demand for the critical minerals needed to make the batteries."

Still, we can't address the next crisis before dealing with the one right in front of us, and the more gas-powered SUVs we ultimately get off the road is only going to benefit us all in the long run.

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