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Wealthy Brits’ drive to buy gas-guzzling SUVs has put the brakes on progress at reducing emissions from cars in the UK, according to new research.
A report by climate charity Possible finds that on average, a car bought new in 2013 and still on the road is likely to have lower CO2 emissions than a new petrol or diesel car bought in 2023.
The research shows that the rise of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) – largely in urban centres – in the UK means that average CO2 emissions per kilometre (gCO2/km) from new internal combustion engine cars are no longer falling at the national level.
Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuelled cars are in fact rising in urban areas where large SUVs are most popular, such as Kensington and Chelsea. Three quarters of new SUVs and two thirds of all large SUVs bought in the UK are registered to urban addresses – despite the vehicles being built with features for off-road driving, including raised ground clearance and four-wheel drive.
The charity is calling for carbon emissions-based parking and road user charging to specifically target the heaviest emitters.
Industry-wide marketing drives to push sales of more profitable SUVs over smaller, less polluting models is thought to be behind the reversal in emissions progress.
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The analysis of Department for Transport data shows that annual reductions in average CO2 emissions of new cars sold in the UK are now exclusively attributable to the growing market share of electric vehicles (EVs).
Electric sales are expected to be the main source of future CO2 reductions. When you look at only petrol and diesel vehicles, the rise of heavy emitting cars means that the previous trend of falling emissions thanks to improving fuel efficiency has been halted, and is even reversing in some areas.
The analysis also found that the sales price of new ICE cars in the UK correlates closely with its greenhouse gas emissions – the more expensive the car, the higher its climate impact is likely to be.
This is contributing to a wider pattern where environmental impact of the driving habits of the richest people, who can afford EVs but choose instead to buy high-emitting SUVs, are substantially more damaging to the climate relative to those on lower incomes.
SUVs are now dominating car sales for the richest households, largely due to an industry-wide drive to persuade consumers to buy larger, heavier SUVs over other cars – leading SUVs to dominate over 40% of the market share of new cars in the UK, the report finds.
By 2019, for every EV sold in the UK, 37 new SUVs were sold – although surging EV sales means this ratio is now falling. New SUVs are also the second largest source of increasing emissions worldwide after power generation and have, on average, 20% higher CO2 emissions than conventional cars. Research has found that policies to ‘downsize’ the UK’s car fleet to smaller, more fuel efficient models could deliver emissions savings of a similar scale to electrification in the near term.
It’s often assumed that carbon emissions from cars owned by lower income families are worse due to the vehicles being older and more polluting. But the report has found this is not the case.
As an example, one of the most expensive postcode districts for housing in London, SW1X in Kensington and Chelsea, has by far the highest gCO2/km for residents’ cars.
The authors’ analysis of National Travel Survey data found the richest fifth of households in England are 81% more likely to own a super-heavy emitting car than households in other income bands.
The charity is calling for an end to advertising of the most polluting SUVs, and for carbon emissions-based parking and road user charging to target the heaviest emitters.
Pricing carbon into parking fees would mostly affect the richest motorists – those who can most afford to pay for the pollution cost to society of driving and parking a high-emission vehicle like an SUV.
New revenues raised from high income owners of the most polluting vehicles could be used to support struggling bus services, which are much more sustainable than private cars, as well as being widely relied on by the lowest income households.
Leo Murray, co-director of climate charity Possible, said: “Thanks to profit-hungry car companies, we are now driving in the wrong direction when it comes to carbon emissions from new fossil fuelled cars.
“This trend towards higher income people buying heavy emitting vehicles needs to go into reverse if we want to have any hope of tackling the climate crisis and achieving net zero. In this crucial time, when emissions should be falling faster than ever, expensive SUVs are riding roughshod over what little progress we have made on transport emissions in the last decade.
“Such large and powerful cars bring a host of other problems to our crowded city streets – too big to fit into standard parking spaces and far more likely to kill pedestrians, especially children, in collisions, they also produce more toxic particulates from tyre wear and do far more damage to the road surface than conventional cars. But none of these costs to society are covered by the purchase price or running costs of large SUVs, meaning authorities need to bring in new policies to remedy this.”
He added: “Making SUV mega polluters pay more is an effective and equitable method to getting people in cities out of these sociopathic urban tractors and into greener ways of getting around.”
Possible is a UK-based charity that “brings people together to take positive, practical action on climate change.”
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