Last year, while so many people stayed home, the world’s sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, collectively managed to burn even more oil than they did in 2019. It would be impressive if it weren’t tragic.
The world’s overall energy-related emissions fell by an estimated 7 per cent in 2020 – the largest drop in history – but emissions from SUVs increased slightly, according to a report released earlier this month by the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based organization that advises industrialized countries on energy issues.
The point here isn’t to finger wag at SUV drivers. The fault is not theirs; SUVs are practical vehicles for millions of Canadians, many of whom have no other means of transportation as convenient or versatile. No, the fault lies with the regulatory loopholes that both caused (in part) the booming popularity of SUVs and are now letting SUVs off the hook by allowing them to guzzle gas.
If we collectively want to keep driving SUVs – and based on the sales numbers even during the pandemic, that is clearly the case – those SUVs need to burn less fuel, or none at all.
Admittedly, the headline from the IEA report earlier this month sensationalizes the situation a bit. Emissions from SUVs were up, but total emissions from passenger vehicles fell in 2020 compared with 2019, said Apostolos Petropoulos, an energy modeller with the IEA who was one of the authors of the report. However, last year’s emissions reduction was only thanks to the pandemic-inflicted lockdowns, he explained. The fact remains, the shift to SUVs has undermined efforts to lower global emissions.
Overall emissions from light duty vehicles in Canada are rising, according to the latest national greenhouse gas inventory. More people are driving more vehicles, and those vehicles are more often SUVs. On average, SUVs in the United States consume 30 per cent more energy than a medium-size car for the same distance travelled, according to IEA analysis.
At the heart of the issue is U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which Canada follows. Those standards treat most SUVs as light trucks, thereby holding them to less ambitious fuel-efficiency targets than cars. Even before Donald Trump gutted the regulations, the Obama-era rules allowed for a big gap between fuel-economy targets for SUVs and those for cars (such as sedans and hatchbacks).
On the surface, that makes sense. Old-school body-on-frame SUVs are bigger, heavier and will be less fuel efficient. But, most modern SUVs are crossovers, which are essentially just tall cars, and have the potential to be much more efficient.
Under CAFE regulations, you can have two similar vehicles of the same size, but one can be classified as a car while the other is a truck, so the latter is allowed to burn more fuel, explained Chris Harto, senior sustainability policy analyst at the consumer advocacy group Consumer Reports.
“It’s easier for [auto makers] to comply with larger vehicles considered trucks – most SUVs are considered trucks – than it is for a smaller vehicle or a car,” Mr. Harto said.
Light trucks and SUVs accounted for 80 per cent of the new vehicles sold in Canada last year, according to market research firm DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.
It’s obviously not consumer choice alone that has driven the SUV boom; it’s poor regulations that have backfired. (Some would argue – convincingly, I think – that the regulations were intentionally poor; that loopholes were designed to favour U.S. automakers, which tend to make larger vehicles.)
The simple fact is, in North America, recent fuel-economy regulations are failing to do the one thing they are supposed to do, which is reduce total emissions from passenger vehicles in order to help stave off the climate crisis.
The most obvious fix is relatively simple: narrow the gap between fuel-economy targets for cars and those for SUVs, thereby closing a loophole that favours SUVs.
With Mr. Trump gone, that seems like a real possibility – but it’s just a start. We also need ambitious long-term fuel-economy targets out to 2030 and beyond, and a viable plan to speed the shift to zero-emissions vehicles, which we certainly do not have in most of Canada. North America is lagging behind Europe and China on clean cars.
This isn’t a moon shot. “The auto industry has the technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions of new cars and light-trucks 60 per cent by 2030, while significantly improving fuel economy,” according to a recent statement by Consumer Reports. What’s more, research shows that doing so would likely save people money over all, with slightly higher vehicle purchase prices more than offset by fuel savings.
If we’re going to keep driving SUVs, they’ve got to clean up their act.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.