Recent research has revealed that the increasing popularity of ultra-heavy SUVs in England has resulted in a scenario where a conventionally powered car purchased in 2013 typically has lower carbon emissions than a new one bought today.
A study conducted by the climate advocacy organization Possible has established a strong connection between income levels and SUV ownership. This suggests a compelling argument for implementing “polluter pays” taxes based on vehicle emissions, particularly their size.
An analysis of vehicle ownership trends in England demonstrates that households in the top 20% income bracket are 81% more likely to possess high-emission vehicles compared to those in the remaining 80%. Furthermore, individuals in the top 20% income category cover three times more annual mileage than those in the lowest income quintile. The study concludes that the driving habits of the wealthiest individuals have a more detrimental impact on the environment than those of the less affluent.
The focus on London’s Kensington and Chelsea borough data underscores the prevalence of SUV ownership in wealthier areas, especially super-heavy, high-emission models like the Land Rover Defender. Nearly a quarter of the vehicles in the borough’s most affluent zone fall into this category, while only 5% in the economically deprived areas do.
This research emerges at a time of heightened concern regarding the environmental, health, and safety consequences associated with the growing popularity of SUVs. These vehicles, often large four-wheel drives weighing over two metric tons, are becoming increasingly common.
Although the definition of an SUV can vary, the proportion of SUVs sold in the UK has surged from about one-fifth to nearly one-third of all car sales in recent years. Notably, three-quarters of these SUVs are registered to urban residents, despite being marketed as off-road or heavy-duty vehicles.
The study indicates that the rising sales of SUVs, combined with their typically heavier build compared to traditional models, have resulted in new conventionally powered cars purchased in 2023 having higher carbon emissions than their 2013 counterparts.
The report advocates for distinguishing charges based on greenhouse gas emissions from those linked to emissions with immediate public health implications, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx).
While recent discussions around London’s extended ultra-low emission zone have mainly revolved around concerns that vehicles emitting higher NOx levels are typically older and used by individuals with lower incomes, this report posits that high greenhouse gas emissions often result from wealthier individuals purchasing oversized SUVs. The authors propose the imposition of parking and road user charges based on carbon emissions, highlighting the social justice dimension of this approach.
For example, Lambeth in South London charges owners of the heaviest, highest-emission vehicles more than four times the rate for an annual parking permit compared to owners of smaller cars. Kensington and Chelsea implements a similar scheme with variations of up to ten times in charges.
The report suggests that other local authorities should adopt comparable measures to counter the proliferation of SUVs. It concludes with a clear message: “The Chelsea tractor has launched an assault on the future, and if we don’t act swiftly, we will all find ourselves under its wheels.”
The prevalence of SUVs is even more pronounced in some other countries, representing roughly 50% of all vehicle sales in the US. A recent report by the International Energy Agency in Paris highlighted that globally, SUVs produce emissions equivalent to the combined national emissions of the UK and Germany.
In the US, there has been a particular emphasis on the safety implications for pedestrians and cyclists due to SUVs, especially ultra-large “trucks.” After decades of declining pedestrian fatalities, the US has seen an increase in pedestrian deaths, reaching the highest level since 1981, with approximately 7,500 fatalities annually.