U.S. SUVs are much dirtier than small cars — but they’re more profitable for automakers, too

Luxury SUVs get off the lot with a far greater share of their carbon footprint than any other vehicle type, a new study has found. That is in part because more SUV owners switch…

U.S. SUVs are much dirtier than small cars — but they’re more profitable for automakers, too

Luxury SUVs get off the lot with a far greater share of their carbon footprint than any other vehicle type, a new study has found. That is in part because more SUV owners switch to more durable off-road tires that require lighter weight than sports tire types, which means more cars are sold with less efficient designs, and therefore more energy and resources are used to produce and distribute them.

Between 2010 and 2017, six of the top 10 vehicle brands’ internal combustion engines were also SUV-based vehicles, and the average SUV sold during the period weighed in at 76 percent of the total vehicle weight. By contrast, a sports car, which had the least impact on the environment, averaged just 5 percent of its total weight in its respective engine type. It’s a trend that will only accelerate with new design plans from automakers and the marketing of all-wheel drive to hold down costs.

The study, the first of its kind by environmental advocacy organization the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), analyzed data from Amazon’s Global Sustainability Index for almost every vehicle sold by every automaker in North America. The studies found that the average SUV sold, despite being more fuel efficient than the average car, emitted twice as much carbon pollution and came with five times as much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as the average car or light truck sold over the same period. More than a quarter of the entire carbon footprint of the SUV came from their internal combustion engines.

“Manufacturers like to think that luxury vehicles are eco-friendly because customers might use the convenience of luxury SUVs to power a car on electric and ditch the SUV for the family car,” said Erica Westrate, senior director of NRDC’s climate program. “These reports tell a much different story. It’s far too soon to tell if SUV owners actually hold their vehicles on electric, but simply put, luxury SUV buyers are driving for half as much CO2 per vehicle as the same SUV without SUVs.”

And the trend isn’t one automakers should be crowing about, according to the study. Even “eco-friendly” SUVs, because they’re usually a far larger vehicle, lead to nearly three times as much carbon dioxide emissions as electric vehicles in power generation. That is something NRDC estimates could save the world between 100 million and 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, the study estimates.

What’s more, it’s hard to take them seriously when luxury SUV owners enjoy three times as much climate change as people with a small SUV or hatchback. That is, even when they do use their cars as if they were luxury, shopping for and installing pricey premium tires, opting for off-road features and other features that run the risk of wasting gas, consumers take in the extra pounds and end up imposing even more on the environment.

To ensure that luxury SUV buyers choose more responsible modes of transportation, the NRDC study proposes a number of consumer-related fixes.

Crucially, car companies should sell higher-horsepower vehicles with lower emissions, but most of all they should provide better diesel technology to power their higher-performance vehicles. For starters, the environmental impact of SUV-based engines is greatly reduced when they are equipped with turbocharged engines and six-cylinder engines that have the power to drive larger vehicles and emit fewer emissions. And when SUVs are equipped with more efficient, more fuel-efficient six-cylinder engines than the base models they’re replacing, they can take up to 15% less road space.

Automakers should also consider the cost of improving the fuel efficiency of their more popular, SUV-based vehicles, according to the NRDC study. More efficient transmissions, which use more gears to help maximize fuel efficiency, would help. Experts also recommend using lighter fuel-injection components for more fuel-efficient engines in SUVs, which cuts the emissions of a vehicle on the road by up to 35 percent.

Check out more NRDC Earth Day 2019 content at www.nrdc.org/earthday.

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