It’s easy to get a little complacement sometimes, particularly when you live in Europe. The region is doing better than most in terms of countering rising emissions, largely down to great performance in the electricity sector. Coal is stalling, oil is losing its bankability and gas is hopefully up next.
There is a problem waiting in the wings that is very much unlike the electricity sector. It involves large companies, sure, but it also involves people, because it relates to the cars we decide to buy. You and I aren’t in charge of whether to build a wind farm or a coal-fired power station, but most of us are directly or indirectly linked to the purchase of a small fossil fuel combustion device at some point in our lives. This means a unique interplay between what people want from their transport and what’s supplied by the companies that manufacture vehicles.
It should be an easy win, right? Support for climate action is incredibly high, even during a pandemic. People want change, and they’re willing to take personal actions to see that realised. Here in Europe the curve isn’t just stalling – it’s bending in precisely the wrong direction. That is incredibly unsettling.
A new data set released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) has confirmed a trend from the past few years: emissions from new cars are rising. Thing were looking okay up until around 2016; after that, the average CO2 emissions from passenger vehicles sold in the EU began a steady climb upwards, which has continued in the new 2019 data:
In fact, petrol and diesel cars still badly dominate new car sales in Europe. Norway – where I live – has seen stunning progress in the rollout of electric replacements, but the change now needs to come from countries like Germany and France:
We need to get to the bottom of this to arrest the rising curve of car emissions in Europe, and it turns out the answer is relatively simple.
The four wheel driving is killing climate action
We already knew that the rise of the four wheel drive (SUV) was a major contributor to rising global emissions. The International Energy Agency said recently that four in ten cars sold globally are 4WDs. In Europe, that’s one in three.
“SUV sales have grown from 7% in 2009 to 36% in 2018, coupled with an increase in vehicle power and weight. For every 1% shift in the market to more SUVs, the CO2 emissions increase by 0.15 gCO2/km on average”, wrote the Transport and Environment 2019 report. The latest report confirms they are now 38% of sales in Europe – up from 7% in 2008.
The chart above splits out the average emissions intensity of Europe’s fleet by manufacturer, with Jaguar / Land Rover clearly standing out. The reason is relatively clear once you dig further into the data – these manufacturers are increasing their shares of large vehicles in lockstop with this increase in emissions intensity. It is truly astonishing to see this graph, in the context of 2013 – 2018 being years in which climate action was ratcheting upwards in seriousness and prominence, and the Paris Climate Agreement being right smack bang in the middle of this:
This puts the European Union badly off course for its emissions targets. In fact, the growth of four wheel drives has essentially offset the small impact of new electric vehicles (particularly in Norway and Germany) and makes it very likely Europe will miss the 95 grams per kilometres (NEDC) emissions target for 2020/21:
In 2020, 95% of cars are already subject to very significant fines for exceeding the per-kilometre emissions limit of 95 gCO2/km. At 95 Euros per gCO2/km, the fines will add up – easily – to billions. That’s good for Tesla, which is pocketing billions by selling clean vehicle credits, and its CyberTruck, or the rival Rivian – and their potential to change the conversation about EVs, 4WDs, utes and off-roads – can’t come fast enough.
But automakers are already urging the EU Comission to put a stick in the spokes of this scheme, delaying targets and blaming the coronavirus pandemic. But that ignores the fact that this is a problem solely of their own making – surely one they saw coming, as they massively boosted the dominance of polluting vehicles in favour of simply ditching the combustion engine.
Using the 2019 provisional data set, of the 15,443,109 new cars sold in 2019, 1,419,293 were below the looming 95 g/km limit. That’s around 9% of new cars. The rest are over the limit – if we very crudely (there are exceptions and credit systems) apply the 2020-21 fining rules to 2019’s data, it’s around 44 billion Euros.
The blame game is actually pretty important
The European transport group Transport and Environment (T&E) place the blame squarely on the shoulders of car manufacturers deciding to hobble electric vehicle plans and prioritise four wheel drives.“Carmakers are playing a high risk game where they’re deliberately postponing sales of cleaner cars to maximise SUV-fueled profits. It may please their shareholders but it’s a tragedy for our planet,” said T&E’s Julia Poliscanova, clean vehicles manager.
“These figures are a stark reminder that governments need to be much more forceful when it comes to promoting zero emission vehicles, in particular by reforming vehicle taxation and rolling out charge points.”
This seems like an extremely resolvable problem. First and foremost, the car manufacturers need to stop making things worse. This means putting the brakes on their shift towards increasing vehicle emissions in the name of profit. If they don’t, it’s likely that a major social movement will spring up targeting four wheel drives, which have enjoyed nowhere near enough attention to date. A good recent example would be climate activists targeting Frankfurt’s auto show in September 2019. These are powerful movements, and they’ll put any company that is making things worse quickly in their place.
The sheer optics of demanding that emissions targets be delayed or scrapped due solely to their own long-building in action – in no way related to the coronavirus pandemic – would surely add to this backlash.
It’s a problem in Australia too, though far less scrutinised, due to the total absence of any emissions targets. “Of our top-10 models in 2018, not one was a full-size sedan (unthinkable, even a decade ago), and just three passenger cars in total. We have now entered the era of light-commercial vehicles and SUVs. The passenger car is, if not dead, then dying”, wrote Cars Guide, in June. This is a major problem, and if the trend continues, Australia will face the same problem of rising transport emissions, though without any target to miss.
The first half of the 2020s will see us reckoning with this challenge. It pits corporate power and consumer demand against the need to massively reduce emissions. Electric vehicles are a popular and feasible alternative, but there is far too little movement on this to date, in Europe and in Australia.
Ketan Joshi has been at the forefront of clean energy for eight years, starting out as a data analyst working in wind energy, and expanding that knowledge base to community engagement, climate science and new energy technology. He writes for The Driven’s parent site, RenewEconomy, and has also written for the Guardian, The Monthly, ABC News and has penned several hundred blog posts digging into climate and energy issues, building a position as a respected and analytical energy commentator in Australia. He’s spoken at the Ethics Centre IQ2 debates on the need for urgent decarbonisation, he’s served as an subject matter expert on national television, and has a wide following on social media around energy and climate.