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Lordstown Endurance (at a demonstration with then-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in 2020): Most energy-hungry electric model in the official U.S. rating with 70 kWh per 100 miles/equivalent to almost five liters of gasoline per 100 km

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

New cars are getting bigger and heavier. In 2022, SUVs accounted for the majority of new cars sold worldwide for the first time, according to a recent report by the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI). The average weight of the vehicles has risen to a record 1.5 tonnes.

More mass that has to be moved – this means not only more risk of accidents, but also more energy consumption and, as a result, more emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases. According to the GFEI report, this undermines another, positive trend: the energy intensity of vehicles, i.e. consumption for the same output, decreases by more than four percent per year.

30 percent energy wasted

The main reason for the efficiency gained is the switch to electric drive, which is now found in one in seven new cars worldwide. Especially in markets with a high share of electric cars, such as China or Europe, the balance has improved by leaps and bounds since 2020.

If the average vehicle size had remained the same since 2010, the energy consumption and CO₂ emissions of the new car fleet could have been more than 30 percent lower than they are today, according to the GFEI.

This rebound effect is already known from combustion engines: Drives have become considerably more economical in recent decades, but the profits have ended up in cars with significantly more power. As a result, energy consumption hardly decreased. Electric SUVs are accelerating both trends – lower fuel consumption per power, more power per vehicle.

"We need to move away from these mega-vehicles," said Sheila Watson of the FIA Foundation's Executive Board. The foundation of the worldwide umbrella organisation of automobile clubs such as the ADAC had commissioned the report from the GFEI. The initiative is also backed by UN bodies and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Will electric SUVs replace fossil SUVs – or compact cars?

The IEA, on the other hand, in its own report on electric vehicles, was able to see a positive climate contribution of electric SUVs, even a greater one than with small electric cars. However, this is based on the assumption that electric SUVs will replace similarly heavy vehicles with combustion engines, i.e. save a correspondingly large amount of CO₂ emissions – and that it is not the electric drive that promotes the switch to a larger car in the first place.

According to the IEA, SUVs powered by fossil oil now emit almost one billion tons of CO₂ worldwide. This corresponds to more than the total emissions of Germany.

The environmental organization Greenpeace also criticized in its own analysis that the SUV boom is destroying climate progress. Because of him, oil consumption is falling only hesitantly. Although electric SUVs are CO₂-neutral in operation, they consume more renewable energy and require more raw materials and energy to produce than smaller electric cars with an aerodynamic shape.

Government anti-SUV turnaround called for

The GFEI sees the responsibility for this in the model policy of the car manufacturers. SUVs are more profitable to sell, even if parts of the clientele are scared away by higher prices – and may therefore turn against electrification.

The report recommended that governments actively limit vehicle size growth. In order to achieve sustainable mobility, the SUV trend must be reversed. For example, the state could set standards for car fleets such as leasing companies or taxis, and binding weight limits would also be an option.