Environmentalists don’t tend to be big fans of SUVs, but it might surprise you to learn how damaging they really are.

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Posted on EVANNEX on August 22, 2020 by Charles Morris

In a recent article published in Forbes.com, David Vetter reports that the average SUV uses 25% more energy than a standard-sized family car, because of its greater weight and less aerodynamic design. Between 2010 and 2018, the global proliferation of SUVs caused an increase in gasoline consumption of 3.3 million barrels per day. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), this translated to an increase of 0.55 gigatons of CO2 over one decade, making SUVs “the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector.” That’s not vehicles in general—just SUVs. 

Above: Tesla's all-electric Model Y (Source: EVANNEX; Photo by Casey Murphy)

To look at it another way, SUVs now produce more emissions than the entire aviation industry. By 2040, it will take almost 150 million EVs to offset the emissions of the world’s gas-guzzling SUVs.

SUVs don’t just kill people slowly with air pollution—SUVs and trucks are also more deadly for pedestrians than sedans. A recent article by Jim Gorzelany on Forbes.com cites a Michigan study of vehicle crashes that found that 100% of pedestrians hit by SUVs traveling at over 40 mph were killed, whereas only 54% of those nailed by sedans died.

Why are buyers flocking to these killing machines? The obvious answer is simply that they’re the current fashion. Most car buyers want to drive what every other new car owner is driving, so the more SUVs people see on the roads, the more people want them. Automakers are only too happy to indulge consumers’ worst impulses, because SUVs (and pickup trucks) deliver massive profit margins.

Some consumer advocates are fighting back. Vetter tells us that the British think tank New Weather Institute has launched a campaign to discourage advertising for products that fuel the climate emergency. New Weather calls this kind of antisocial marketing “Badvertising”—advertising that encourages consumers to buy environmentally damaging products.

Badvertising appeals to peoples’ rebellious nature—it’s fun to be a little bad, and do the things “the establishment” tells us not to do. We see this tendency in “bacon mania,” the explosive growth in popularity of bacon in the US that began around the time health experts began cautioning people to limit their consumption of the processed, chemical-laden meat product.

New Weather Institute’s Badvertising campaign doesn’t advocate any sort of ban on SUVs, but it is pushing for them to be treated in a similar way to tobacco, which faces strict limits on its advertising in most advanced countries. “We ended tobacco advertising when we understood the threat from smoking to public health,” said New Weather Institute Co-director Andrew Simms. “Now that we know the human health and climate damage done by car pollution, it’s time to stop adverts making the problem worse. In a pandemic-prone world people need clean air and more space on town and city streets.”

Electrifying SUVs is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t change the fact that larger and heavier vehicles will always consume more energy. For example, a comparison on fueleconomy.gov shows us that the 2019 Audi e-tron uses 46 kWh of electricity to go 100 miles, and the 2019 Jaguar I-Pace sucks up 44 kWh. Compare these efficiency ratings to those of the smaller Nissan LEAF (30 kWh/100 miles) and Chevy Bolt (28 kWh/100 miles).

So, we find that the difference in fuel efficiency between an electric SUV and a small electric hatchback is even greater than the difference of 25% that we noted above for gas vehicles (the I-Pace consumes 31% more electrons per mile than the LEAF). Of course, as many studies have shown, any EV has a smaller carbon footprint than the average gas or diesel vehicle, and EVs emit zero nitric oxides and other local air pollutants. But even renewable energy has environmental impacts, and, just as it’s better to reduce and reuse than to recycle, it’s always better to use less energy in the first place.

I know, I know. You love the space and ride height of an SUV. Is there any way to have the best of both worlds, a stylish and roomy vehicle that delivers maximum efficiency? Actually, there is: try a Tesla. The 2019 Tesla Model X Long Range has an efficiency of 35 kWh/100 miles, far better than the Audi or the Jaguar. The 2019 Tesla Model Y Long Range AWD achieves 28 kWh/100 miles, equal to the efficiency of the smaller and squarer Chevy Bolt!

There must be some trade-offs, right? Well, in fact both Teslas beat the Audi and the Jag on range: 325 miles for the X and 316 miles for the Y, compared to 204 miles for the e-tron and 234 miles for the I-Pace. When it comes to cargo space, it’s not even close. Model Y has 68.0 cubic feet with the seats folded down, which trounces the e-tron’s 57 cubic feet and the I-Pace’s 51. Even the Model S sedan beats ‘em both, with 60.2 cubic feet, and the massive Model X is in a different league, with 87.8.

How much more would you pay for better efficiency, more range and more cargo space? Well, the latest figures show the 2020 Jaguar I-Pace starting at $69,850, and the 2020 e-tron going for $77,400. Over on Tesla.com, Model Y starts at $49,990, and Model X is kicking off at $79,900.

Tesla’s not paying us to do their advertising for them (they probably should), so we’ll end this discussion here, and let you draw your own conclusions about how you might balance your SUV obsession with your green concerns.

The best thing for the environment would probably be for us all to walk and ride bikes, but we humans are what we are, and for better or worse, most of us want to drive an SUV (or at least, something that’s called an SUV or a crossover). 

In contrast to carmakers entrenched in internal combustion engine tech, Tesla’s overarching mission is to save energy and reduce emissions. So it isn’t just a coincidence that its vehicles have by far the best efficiency ratings in their respective classes.

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Written by: Charles Morris