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SUVs would be sixth largest carbon emitter if they were a country, Dáil committee told

SUVs would have been the sixth largest emitter of carbon in the world last year if they were a country, while cars are now 300kg heavier than they were since the beginning of the century.

Those were just some of the facts presented to the Oireachtas climate committee as it heard from a range of experts about how SUVs and larger vehicles are affecting our carbon emissions targets. Recent years have seen a drift towards SUVs and other large vehicles in new car sales. 

More than half the new cars sold in Ireland so far this year are classed as small, medium, or large SUVs, according to the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (Simi), which said by the end of August, more than 67,000 SUVs had been sold of about 112,000 total vehicle sales. 

University College Cork professor in sustainable energy Hannah Daly told the committee that fully electric vehicle (EV) sales grew by 60% so far this year compared to the same period last year, now representing 18% of new car sales.

While this is a positive trend, sales of fossil fuel-powered vehicles are growing faster, traffic volumes are as high as ever despite increasing numbers of public transport users, she warned.

"The average mass of new vehicles sold in Ireland increased by 25% in the past two decades. Cars are now 300kg heavier than they were in 2001. The mass of individual car models is growing and sales are shifting towards larger and heavier vehicle types, such as SUVs," she told TDs and senators.

Larger cars increase energy consumption and CO2 emissions in several ways, she added.

There is a compelling argument to include weight and vehicle footprint in the calculation of vehicle registration tax (VRT) for both fossil-fuelled cars and EVs, she said.

Currently, taxes on EVs are lower as they emit far less pollution than petrol and diesel cars.

While greater greenhouse gas savings can be achieved from addressing the weight of fossil-fuelled cars, the increasing weight in EVs is also of concern. 

"Currently, Irish vehicle taxation does not distinguish between EVs on the basis of efficiency, weight or size, which is a missed opportunity," Prof Daly said.

Heavier EVs are less efficient and consume more electricity, putting additional strain on power generation and renewable electricity deployment, she added.

Apostolos Petropoulos from the International Energy Agency (IEA) told the committee 330 million SUVs currently on the road collectively emit nearly a billion tonnes of CO2. 

"In 2022 alone, CO2 emissions related to SUVs surged by almost 70 million tonnes. Putting this into perspective, if SUVs were treated as a single country, they would rank as the world's sixth-largest emitter of CO2 in 2022," he said.

While electric SUVs accounted for over half of all global electric car sales last year, it is "crucial to note that more than 98% of SUVs currently on the world's roads are still powered by internal combustion engines", Mr Petropoulos told the committee.

Not all SUVs are overly heavy, but tend to have worse aerodynamics and hence higher CO2 emissions, managing director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, Dr Peter Mock said.

The general increase in vehicle weight is a problem for emissions, pedestrian safety, and road infrastructure, he said, as he showed slides comparing like-for-like cars from the 1970s to the 2020s.

A 2023 VW Golf weighs 1,270kg compared to the 750kg of the 1970s and is nearly 58cm longer, the slides showed.