Bumpy road for our energy transition: consumers increasingly embracing gas-guzzling vehicles


In January the Carbuyer website wrote: “It’s no secret that British car buyers have a soft spot for SUVs. These 4×4-style vehicles have become more popular than ever before.” Hiroko Tabuchi writes in the New York Times that this is a global phenomenon. This is definitely a worrying trend. Solutions?


The World Is Embracing S.U.V.s. That’s Bad News for the Climate

It’s the car of the future. It’s taking off in markets all over in the world.

The electric vehicle? Hardly. It’s the S.U.V., the rugged, off-road gas-guzzler that America invented and the world increasingly loves to drive.

Spurred by rising incomes and lower gas prices, drivers in China, Australia and other countries are ditching their smaller sedans for bigger rides at a rapid pace. For the first time, S.U.V.s and their lighter, more carlike cousins known as “crossovers” made up more than one in three cars sold globally last year, almost tripling their share from just a decade ago, according to new figures from the auto research firm JATO Dynamics.

“Everyone is jumping on S.U.V.s,” said Matthew Weiss, JATO Dynamics’ president for North America.

The ascent of S.U.V.s and crossovers is already slowing progress in reining in emissions from the world’s cars and trucks, major emitters of the gases that are warming the planet. Transportation accounts for an estimated 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and trucks making up the biggest share.

Between 2005 and 2008, the average fuel economy of new cars worldwide improved by about 1.8 percent a year, according to the United Nations-affiliated Global Fuel Economy Initiative. But since then, that pace has slowed to 1.1 percent in 2015, the latest data available, far below the near 3-percent clip needed to simply stabilize emissions from the world’s car fleet.

There are no signs that trend has improved since then, said Anup Bandivadekar, who heads the passenger vehicle program at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit think tank affiliated with the United Nations initiative. “It’s making progress in fuel economy increasingly difficult,” he said.

The global S.U.V. boom is a roadblock in the march toward cleaner cars that has been aided by advances in fuel-saving technology and hybrid or electric vehicles. Compared to smaller cars, S.U.V.s are less efficient, generally by about 30 percent.

S.U.V.s are also less likely to go electric soon. There are technological hurdles to powering a larger car with batteries, and the perception among many automakers remains that drivers of S.U.V.s value power and performance, and don’t want to be constrained by the range anxiety of battery-powered cars.

For the moment, Tesla’s Model X is the only major fully electric S.U.V. on the market. The company has sold about 40,000 since they went on sale in 2015.

The S.U.V.-building bonanza contrasts with promises made by automakers of big investments in electric vehicles and other low-emitting vehicles. At the same time, they are pouring resources into far more polluting S.U.V.s.

General Motors, which unveiled its Chevy Bolt electric car in 2016, has sold about 25,000 of them in the United States, and the model hasn’t received updates that might spur sales this year. This month, though, the automaker announced it was spending $265 million to build its new Cadillac XT4 crossover S.U.V. at its plant in Kansas City, Kan.

General Motors continues to invest in clean car technology, including all-electric cars, a spokeswoman, Laura Toole, said. “It’s encouraging to see overall industry fuel economy improving — especially given the significant market shift to crossovers and S.U.V.s,” she said in an email.

Volkswagen, which made no S.U.V.s to speak of a decade ago, plans to sell almost 20 new S.U.V. models worldwide by 2020, and expects those models to make up 40 percent of its global sales. Currently, Volkswagen sells just four S.U.V. models.

A Volkswagen spokeswoman, Jeannine Ginivan, said the company’s S.U.V.s were filled with technology that bolsters the car’s efficiency. Still, its most popular Tiguan model, which weighs almost 4,000 pounds, achieves just 27 miles per gallon on the highway, compared to 36 miles for Volkswagen’s Passat, its midsize sedan, which weighs closer to 3,000 pounds.

The S.U.V.’s global dominance today has roots in the United States of the 1970s, when automakers started confronting stricter auto-safety and environmental rules. Authorized by a Clean Air Act amendment to set federal tailpipe rules for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency required automakers to more than double their average fuel efficiency over the following decade. But vans, pickup trucks and other off-road vehicles escaped with fewer restrictions than traditional passenger cars.

The Jeep Cherokee became an early runaway hit — a “versatile family fun machine that has the ruggedness, reliability and go-anywhere heritage Jeep vehicles are known for,” declares the brochure for its 1974 model — leading the way for others to turn working vehicles into family rides. Cherokees and Ford Explorers soon began replacing Tauruses and other smaller cars on driveways across America. In North America, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks outsell all other car categories combined.


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