The Surge in SUV Sales in the UK: Implications for Carbon Emissions and Urban Planning

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(Credit: Transport & Environment’s (T&E))

by | Mar 26, 2024

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The latest analysis from Transport & Environment UK presents a significant development in the automotive industry—a 23% surge in SUV sales since 2022, taking the total to an impressive 1.12 million units. This upward trajectory represents not only a shift in consumer preference but also sets the stage for broader implications on environmental policies, urban planning, and community health. SUVs emit more climate-damaging gases than older cars. Their increasing popularity poses challenges for reducing overall carbon emissions

In 2021, SUVs constituted 50% of new car registrations in the UK, a figure that climbed to 60% in 2023. Projected trends suggest that, by 2027, SUVs might account for three-quarters of all new registrations. This growth trajectory, dominated by oil, diesel, and hybrid vehicles, which make up 83% of these SUVs, casts a long shadow over the UK’s carbon budgets.

Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts of this trend are multifaceted. From a carbon emissions perspective, the preference for larger, fuel-intensive vehicles directly contradicts the UK’s net-zero ambitions. On an urban scale, the rise in SUV registrations exacerbates existing challenges in road safety and efficient space utilization. The increasing vehicle size strains UK roads, posing risks not only to vehicular traffic but also to cyclists and pedestrians. Furthermore, the environmental burden extends beyond carbon emissions, with SUV tires contributing significantly to air pollution levels.

Transport & Environment’s analysis further highlights a troubling trend—vehicles across Europe and the UK are growing in size, with UK cars outpacing the European average. Addressing this challenge requires a concerted effort from automotive manufacturers and policymakers. Introducing regulatory measures such as weight-based taxes on heavier vehicles and enforcing strict limits on vehicle width could steer the market towards more environmentally friendly options.

Urban Obstacles

In 2023, among the top 100 models, research reveals that 52% of vehicles sold exceeded the minimum specified width for on-street parking spaces (about 70.9 inches), impacting major cities like London, Paris, and Rome. Even the average new car (about 70.9 inches wide) struggles for space in off-street parking, while large luxury SUVs, measuring around 78.7 inches wide, no longer fit comfortably.

This size surge is particularly notable among large luxury SUVs; for instance, the Land Rover Defender expanded by about 8.1 inches and the Mercedes X5 by about 2.4 inches in just six years. In 2023, Volvo increased the width of its EX90 by about 1.6 inches. This trend isn’t limited to large SUVs, as carmakers are also widening vehicles across midsize and compact segments.

The trend towards wider vehicles is not only reducing road space for other vehicles and cyclists but also encroaching on footpaths with parked cars. Crash data indicating a 3.9-inch increase in the height of vehicle fronts carries a 30% higher risk of fatalities in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.

Several European cities have responded by implementing more restrictive parking rules for SUVs. Paris, the latest and largest European city to address this trend, has proposed tripling parking fees for particularly heavy cars, with citizens voting on the matter. A recent poll by the Clean Cities Campaign found that around two-thirds of Parisians support higher parking fees for large, heavy, and polluting vehicles. If approved, these measures would set a significant precedent for many other European cities considering similar changes.

Barbara Stoll, Director of the Clean Cities Campaign, emphasized, “Monster SUVs are a threat to the urban fabric of our cities. Unless we act now, more and more of our precious public space will be taken away from people by ever-larger cars – this is not the cleaner, brighter, and greener future that citizens want.”

Echoing these sentiments, Sarah Rowe, also from the Clean Cities Campaign, emphasizes the need for actionable solutions. With cities like Paris taking decisive steps to curb the proliferation of SUVs, there’s a growing public demand for initiatives that prioritize communal health, sustainability, and urban livability over vehicular luxury.

The surge in SUV sales in the UK presents a multifaceted challenge, intertwining issues of environmental sustainability, urban mobility, and public health. While the task ahead is daunting, it offers an opportunity for innovation and collaboration across sectors.

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