Are SUVs sabotaging the green transport revolution?

09 Dec 2019

The demand for sports utility vehicles (SUVs) is threatening the UK’s attempts to clean up the transport sector. Sales of new SUVs now outnumber electric vehicle sales at a rate of 37 to 1.

In its 2019 annual Review of Energy Policy [1], published today, the UK Energy Research Centre [2] examines some of the challenges of meeting the 2050 net zero emissions target. It recommends ten policy actions the next government could take to help meet this target.

The Review highlights how the trend towards purchasing bigger cars is threatening the UK’s attempts to reduce emissions from the transport sector. The report has calculated the impact that the purchase of SUVs is having on UK carbon emissions.

Over the past four years, there have been 1.8 million SUV sales, compared to a total of 47 thousand for battery electric vehicles (BEV). This equates to a staggering ratio of 37:1. In 2018, SUVs accounted for 21.2% of new car sales, up from 13.5% just three years earlier (see figure below).

SUVs are larger and heavier than a standard car, emitting about a quarter more CO2 than a medium-size car [3] and nearly four times more than a medium sized battery electric vehicle [4]. Assuming the majority of these SUVs will be on UK roads for at least a decade, it is estimated the extra cumulative emissions to total around 8.2 million tons of CO2 [5].

The trend is not unique to the UK. The International Energy Agency has estimated growth in SUVs accounts for 60% of the increase in the global car fleet since 2010, concluding that “SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation.” [3]

Until recently, 8 out of 10 plug in electric vehicles sold were plug in hybrid electric vehicles (PEHVs), not pure battery electric vehicles. The majority of the PHEVs sold were also SUVs – specifically the Mitsubishi Outlander – showing that the popularity of SUVs exists within the EV market too. This means that even the relatively small number of electric vehicles that have been sold in the UK are consuming more energy than they need to.

The reasons for the increase in the number of SUVs require further research. They are likely to be a product of attractive car financing packages which divert attention from running costs. In 2018, over 90% of all private new car registrations in the UK were purchased using finance products such as Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) [6]. PCP deals wrap the first year of Vehicle Excise Duty into the monthly cost, effectively rendering the only clear policy signal to discourage high-carbon vehicles useless.

Professor Jillian Anable, UKERC Co-Director said:

“The rapid uptake of unnecessarily large and energy consuming vehicles just in the past few years makes a mockery of UK policy efforts towards the ‘Road to Zero’.

Effectively, we have been sleep-walking into the issue. The decarbonisation of the passenger car market can no longer rely on a distant target to stop the sales of conventional engines. We must start to phase out the most polluting vehicles immediately.

It is time to enact a strong set of regulations to transform the entire car market towards ultra low carbon rather than focusing solely on the uptake of electric vehicles.”

Dr Christian Brand, UKERC Co-Director said:

“There is now overwhelming consensus that achieving net-zero requires the phase out of fossil-fuelled vehicles to be brought forward to 2030 and this must include hybrids.

At the same time government should take action to counter ‘unintended consequences’ such as the recent trend in the UK to buy larger, heavier cars such as SUVs. This trend is global so will require policy and industry action across all global markets including the US, EU and China.”

Professor Jim Watson, UKERC Director said:

“The recent political debate has focused too much on the target year for achieving net zero. Whilst it may be possible to achieve net-zero before 2050, this risks distracting attention from what the next government will do to reduce emissions over the next five years.

This year’s UKERC Review focuses on some of actions that could be taken across government to ensure the UK is on the right path”

All summary recommendations:
  • The transition to net-zero will affect the whole economy. Investment and policy decisions by all government departments need to be compatible with this transition.
  • Policies to support renewable electricity generation should be more ambitious, building on deployment and cost reduction successes. Action is also needed to ensure electricity market rules are fit for a fully decarbonised power sector.
  • Decisions by the energy regulator, Ofgem, should also be compatible with net-zero. This includes enabling investment in local electricity networks to facilitate heat and transport decarbonisation, and ensuring more active use of existing networks.
  • Local energy systems could play a significant role in achieving net-zero, particularly in the integration of electricity, heat and transport. More resources and greater powers for Local Authorities will help to ensure the potential for local action is realised.
  • A clear plan is required for upgrading the UK housing stock. A heat and energy efficiency White Paper must include policies for widespread deployment of low carbon heat (including demonstrating hydrogen at scale) and for prioritising low income households.
  • Whilst the decarbonisation of industry is receiving more attention, policy initiatives are not joined up. Funding for specific projects and industrial clusters should be complemented by market creation policies, including for carbon capture and storage.
  • Our analysis shows that achieving net-zero requires the phase out of fossil-fuelled vehicles to be brought forward to 2030. Immediate action is also required to counter the rapid increase in sales of larger cars (including SUVs).
  • Plans to meet net-zero should maximise environmental co-benefits. Potential negative impacts on ecosystems should be assessed and mitigated.
  • Continuing uncertainty about the UK’s changing relationship with the European Union has already affected decarbonisation plans. Whatever the outcome, close co-operation with the EU is likely to make it easier to achieve net-zero.
  • The transition to net-zero should not compromise energy security. In light of the events on August 9th, responsibilities for ensuring system resilience need to be clarified and applied in a more rigorous way.



Notes to editor

[1] Access the UKERC Review of Energy Policy 2019 here

[2] The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) carries out world-class, interdisciplinary research into sustainable future energy systems. Our whole systems research informs UK policy development and research strategy. UKERC is funded by the UK Research and Innovation, Energy Programme. See for more information.

[3] IEA (2019) World Energy Outlook 2019

[4] This calculation is based on test-cycle tailpipe emissions factors, well-to-tank emissions (from production, generation and transmission of either fossil fuels or electricity) and average UK carbon content of electricity of 316 gCO2/kWh. Final estimates are in the report.

[5] Based on UKERC ‘TEAM-UK’ fleet turnover modelling of large Euro6 internal combustion engine cars ( The model assumptions are in the final report:

[6] Regulation (EU) 2019/631 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 April 2019 setting CO2 emission performance standards for new passenger cars and for new light commercial vehicles. See:

For more information:

Jessica Bays, Head of Communications and Policy, UKERC, Tel: 07809 239 308