SUVs Are Gulping All The Gas Fuel Efficient Cars Are Saving

Photo: Getty

One of the more lamentable trends over the last several decades has been SUVs, pick-up trucks and crossovers becoming the default option for many car-buyers. We at Jalopnik have lamented this trend because smaller cars tend to be more fun, not to mention more affordable, and Americans are often guilty of buying more car than they really need. It’s also proven quite bad for environmental reasons.

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A new paper by the International Energy Agency puts this into perspective. According to the IEA, the global SUV market has doubled in the last decade. As a result, there are now more than 200 million SUVs on the world’s roads. In fact, SUVs alone account for 60 percent of the increased global car fleet since 2010, meaning about two out of every three new cars purchased in that time are SUVs (currently, about two out of every five new vehicles purchased are SUVs).

Although the IEA calls this trend “universal,” you’ll never guess which country loves their big, expensive SUVs the most:

Today, almost half of all cars sold in the United States and one-third of the cars sold in Europe are SUVs. In China, SUVs are considered symbols of wealth and status. In India, sales are currently lower, but consumer preferences are changing as more and more people can afford SUVs. Similarly, in Africa, the rapid pace of urbanisation and economic development means that demand for premium and luxury vehicles is relatively strong.

The trend towards bigger, heavier (and, for car companies, more profitable) vehicles is, of course, also a trend towards vehicles that burn more gas.

In fact, folks swapping their smaller cars for SUVs are a major reason why vehicle emissions have continued to increase despite vehicles, in general, getting more efficient:

On average, SUVs consume about a quarter more energy than medium-size cars. As a result, global fuel economy worsened caused in part by the rising SUV demand since the beginning of the decade, even though efficiency improvements in smaller cars saved over 2 million barrels a day, and electric cars displaced less than 100,000 barrels a day.

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And, as the IEA warns, SUVs could continue to be a bane on efforts to increase vehicle efficiency as electric cars become more prominent:

In fact, SUVs were responsible for all of the 3.3 million barrels a day growth in oil demand from passenger cars between 2010 and 2018, while oil use from other type of cars (excluding SUVs) declined slightly. If consumers’ appetite for SUVs continues to grow at a similar pace seen in the last decade, SUVs would add nearly 2 million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.

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In a world where everyone has either an SUV or an electric vehicle, overall fuel efficiency will remain more or less flat.

Of course, these distinctions are not as solid as the IEA report makes them sound. Many automakers are releasing, or have plans to release, electric SUVs or crossovers, precisely because people who can afford the electric price tag also tend to prefer bigger cars. What they know is that people seem to prefer these kinds of vehicles and they don’t see that trend reversing, so if you want mainstream EV success, you go SUV.

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And while it’s obviously much, much better for the environment to buy an electric SUV than a gas-powered one, batteries add a lot of weight to SUVs that are already quite chonky, so electric SUVs are still less efficient than electric cars. And that electricity is coming from somewhere; the higher the energy demand, the harder it will be to transition the grid to cleaner sources.

In any event, it’s worth noting that getting 150 million electric cars on the road by 2040—the timeline the IEA pegs as an offset for the projected oil demand for the SUVs on the road—is hardly a given. Remember, there are some 200 million SUVs on the road today after about two decades of widespread SUV adoption. It will be hard to get EVs out there on such a scale, even as we, as a society, are not doing the relatively easy thing of just buying vehicles that make sense for our lifestyles.

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So, unless you actually work as a contractor or are an off-roading enthusiast, just buy a damn car.

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About the author

Aaron Gordon

Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik