They are an enormous cause of emissions, and deadly to pedestrians. Is it time for automakers to stop selling them or cities to stop allowing them on their streets?
Over the last decade, global SUV ownership has doubled. In that time, the vehicles contributed more to the increase in global CO2 emissions than airlines, trucks, or heavy industry, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency. Even if we add nearly 150 million electric cars to the road by 2040, if SUV ownership grows at its current rate, they’ll offset that entire emissions reduction. And while they’re spewing emissions, they also have a more tangible cost: They’re more likely than smaller cars to kill pedestrians, contributing to a steep rise in pedestrian deaths.
Now some environmental nonprofits argue that automakers shouldn’t be making the vehicles at all, and some politicians are beginning to argue that they should be banned — if not from everywhere, then at least from city streets. In September, when a 3-year-old, his grandmother, and two men in their twenties were killed by an SUV in Berlin (coincidentally, on the same day that the German newspaper Handelsblatt ran a feature article about the growth in SUVs with the headline “SUV insanity“), hundreds of people protested the next day. The next weekend, thousands of people protested at the Frankfurt Auto Show to denounce the climate damage from the SUVs that automakers were promoting at the show.
“In Germany, it really reached a climax this year because manufacturers will, for the first time, sell more than 1 million SUVs in Germany alone, which is about one-third of the German car market,” says Benjamin Stephan, a transport and climate change campaigner for the German branch of Greenpeace. In the U.S., SUV sales already make up roughly half of total car sales. The vehicles are gaining market share around the world, including in China, where they’re seen as a status symbol. Globally, SUV sales make up around 40% of total car sales. A decade ago, that number was less than 20%.
While many car companies are shifting their fleets — even the SUVs — to electric power, that doesn’t fully solve the problem. The weight and bulk of an SUV means that it needs more energy to move. “If you have an electric vehicle and your electricity consumption goes up, you need a bigger battery if you want to go the same distance,” Stephan says. “That battery has a climate footprint when it’s being produced in the biggest [size] and that’s totally unnecessary. If we take the Paris Climate Agreement seriously and we are looking at this 1.5-degree threshold, we have to create the most efficient transport system possible, and then SUVs don’t make any sense. Not as an internal combustion engine car, but also not as an electric vehicle.”
Over its lifetime, an electric SUV will use more electricity to charge than an electric car, and that’s a problem when the grid doesn’t yet fully run on renewable electricity. The nonprofit calculated that in Texas, for example, with the region’s current electric grid, an electric Tesla Model X, an SUV, will emit 2.9 additional tons of CO2 over its lifetime than a Model S, the sedan equivalent. As a brand like Mercedes pledges to make its cars carbon-neutral by 2039, Stephan says that the company’s plans to keep producing SUVs are a contradiction.
SUVs can also pose safety hazards, especially for other people on the road. For a 1990s-era SUV in a crash with a car, the car driver was 132% more likely to die than in a crash between two cars. By 2005, that had dropped to 88%, and now the difference is 28% — significantly better, but still much riskier than if more small cars were on the road. But SUVs are still more likely to roll over than cars with a lower center of gravity.
And when an SUV hits a pedestrian, that person is more than twice as likely to die than if they had been hit with a smaller car. An investigation last year found that SUVs are a leading reason why pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased 46% between 2009 and 2018. In 2018, an estimated 6,227 people were hit and killed by vehicles on American roads. After the recent crash in Berlin, the district mayor in the area argued that SUVs don’t belong in cities. A deputy leader in the German parliament said that there should be size restrictions on the vehicles allowed in dense urban areas. California — and several other localities — technically have a law on the book that allows cities to set a weight limit for vehicles on its roads, which many newer, larger SUVs exceed. The laws are largely unenforced, but could that change?
In the U.K., at least, the Department for Transport is also studying the problem. “If the data does show that SUVs are twice as deadly, then ownership in urban areas should be discouraged and use within cities curtailed with a ban on new sales,” Adam Reynolds, a transport policy advisor, told Forbes in 2018.
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