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Are SUVs sabotaging the UK's green transport revolution?

The growing demand for sports utility vehicles (SUVs) – sales of which outnumber electric vehicle sales at a rate of 37 to 1 – is threatening the UK’s attempts to clean up the transport sector, according to the annual Review of Energy Policy published by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). 

The Review highlights how the trend towards purchasing bigger cars is threatening the UK’s attempts to reduce emissions from the transport sector. Over the past four years, 1.8mn SUVs have been sold, compared to 47,000 battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In 2018, SUVs accounted for 21% of new car sales, up from 14% just three years earlier.

SUVs are larger and heavier than a standard car, emitting about a quarter more carbon dioxide than a medium sized car, and nearly four times more than a medium sized BEV, says UKERC. 

Until recently, eight out of ten plug-in electric vehicles sold were plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), not pure battery electric vehicles. The majority of the PHEVs sold were also SUVs – mainly the Mitsubishi Outlander – showing that the popularity of SUVs exists within the electric vehicle market too. This means that even the relatively small number of electric vehicles that have been sold in the UK are consuming more energy than they need to, says UKERC. 

The trend is not unique to the UK. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated growth in SUVs accounts for 60% of the increase in the global car fleet since 2010. The IEA concluded that SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry, trucks and aviation. 

Professor Jillian Anable, UKERC Co-Director said: ‘The rapid uptake of unnecessarily large and energy consuming vehicles just in the past few years makes a mockery of UK policy efforts towards the Road to Zero. It is time to enact a strong set of regulations to transform the entire car market towards ultra-low carbon rather than focusing solely on the uptake of electric vehicles.’

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