Global sales of polluting SUVs hit record high in 2023, data shows

Sales of SUVs hit a new record in 2023, making up half of all new cars sold globally, new data has revealed. Experts warned that the rising sales of the large, heavy vehicles is pushing up the carbon emissions that drive global heating.

The analysis, by the International Energy Agency, found that the rising emissions from SUVs in 2023 made up 20% of the global rise in CO2, making the vehicles a major cause of the intensifying climate crisis. If SUVs were a country, the IEA said, they would be the world’s fifth-largest emitter of CO2, ahead of the national emissions of both Japan and Germany.

Climate-fuelled extreme weather is increasing, with urgent cuts in emissions needed. But emissions from the global transport sector have risen fast in recent years, outside of the Covid pandemic. SUV sales rose 15% in 2023, compared with a 3% rise for conventional cars.

SUVs now account for half of all new car sales

The IEA said the main reasons behind the surge in SUVs were the “the appeal of SUVs as a status symbol”, marketing by automakers, and perceptions that they are more comfortable. The IEA also said SUVs caused greater injury to pedestrians in collisions, due to their higher front-ends, and took up more space in cities than regular cars.

About 20% of the new SUVs sold in 2023 were pure electric or plug-in hybrids. But the IEA said the larger vehicles needed bigger batteries, putting more pressure on the supply of critical minerals and requiring more electricity to run.

Cars running on petrol or diesel have become more efficient. But the IEA’s Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos, who did the analysis, said: “The trend toward heavier and less efficient vehicles such as SUVs has largely nullified the improvements achieved in recent decades.”

James Nix, at the thinktank Transport and Environment (T&E), said: “Carmakers in pursuit of higher margins know only one direction: bigger and heavier. New cars are getting wider every year, and are on track to become as wide as buses and trucks. Europe will go the way of North America unless lawmakers step in with EU width limits and national taxes and parking charges which discourage big SUVs.”

There were more than 360m SUVs on the roads worldwide in 2023, producing 1bn tonnes of CO2 emissions, up about 10% on 2022. As a result, global oil consumption rose by 600,000 barrels a day, more than a quarter of total growth in oil demand, the IEA said. SUVs weigh 200-300kg more than an average medium-sized car and emit about 20% more CO2.

In rich countries, almost 20m new SUVs were sold in 2023, surpassing a market share of 50% for the first time. Globally, 48% of new cars were SUVs and, including older cars, one in four cars on the road today are SUVs, according to the IEA.

Sales of electric cars are rising rapidly and 55% of these were SUVs in 2023, the IEA data showed. “Shifting from fossil-fuelled cars to electric vehicles is a key strategy for reaching international energy and climate goals,” Cozzi and Petropoulos said. But they said using fewer materials to produce cars was also “essential for a sustainable future”.

Some countries, including France, Norway and Ireland, are working to rein in demand for SUVs, with Paris tripling parking charges for the large vehicles.

In March, T&E said that the UK was a “tax haven” for polluting SUVs, as the vehicle excise duty for them in the first year is a fraction of that in other countries. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said in February he would monitor the effectiveness of the Paris plan.

The Guardian