Electric SUVs are growing in popularity, but not quickly enough to offset the increasing oil consumption and emissions of the wider fleet

Global car markets did not have a good year in 2022, but SUVs 1 were an exception, raising further concerns about their impact on efforts to tackle climate change. A strong increase in sales of electric models was not enough to prevent carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from SUVs worldwide reaching almost 1 billion tonnes in 2022.

Total car sales fell close to 0.5% to around 75 million units2 in 2022, following strong growth in 2021. The contraction was most pronounced in the United States and European Union, where car markets shrunk by around 8% and 4% respectively, due in part to the ripple effect of component shortages, rising inflation and higher interest rates. On the other hand, despite renewed Covid-19 lockdowns, the People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”) saw passenger car sales increase by more than 10%.

Electric cars bucked the global trend, despite supply chain challenges and rising battery prices. Electric car sales increased in all markets, boosted by an increasing number of models, high oil prices and targeted policy support. Global sales of electric cars increased by around 60% in 2022, according to our latest estimates, surpassing 10 million for the first time, up from sales of 6.6 million in 2021. (More information about the developments of electric car markets will be available in the IEA’s Global EV Outlook 2023). Major car markets were at the forefront of electric cars sales: more than one in four cars sold in China, over one in five in the European Union and nearly one in ten in the United States were electric in 2022, according to data provider EV Volumes.

Passenger car sales, 2010-2022


Global SUV sales also increased despite supply chain obstacles and rising inflation, growing by around 3% between 2021 and 2022. In 2022, SUVs accounted for around 46% of global car sales, with noticeable growth coming in the United States, India and Europe. And an increasing number of SUVs were electric, accounting for around 16% of total SUV sales in 2022, above the average overall market share for EVs. For the first time ever, electric SUVs last year accounted for over half of global electric car sales. Over 400 electric car models were available on the global market in 2022, of which around 55% were SUVs; up from around 40% four years ago.

Electric vehicle sales by segment, 2021


Electric vehicle sales by segment, 2020


Electric vehicle sales by segment, 2022


The shift towards heavier and less fuel-efficient conventional vehicles increases growth in both oil demand and CO2 emissions. Between 2021 and 2022, oil use in conventional cars, excluding SUVs, remained roughly the same, but the oil consumption of SUVs globally increased by 500 000 barrels per day, accounting for one-third of the total growth in oil demand. On average, SUVs consume around 20% more oil than an average medium-size non-SUV car. The combustion-related CO2 emissions of SUVs increased by nearly 70 million tonnes in 2022. Altogether, the 330 million SUVs on the road today emit nearly 1 billion tonnes of CO2.

Passenger car fleet and share of SUVs in total car emissions, 2010-2022


Rapidly increasing the number of electric cars on the road in place of conventional cars is a key part of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century. At the same time, SUVs require larger batteries to power them, so a growing electric SUV market would impose additional pressure on battery supply chains and further increase demand for the critical minerals needed to make the batteries. Addressing those risks ahead of time is possible through a number of actions: downsizing of the average car size; increasing battery swapping; and investing in innovative battery technologies. Those strategies would keep in check the investment requirements for developing the cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel resources needed to satisfy the increasing uptake of EVs.

This commentary is derived from data available in the World Energy Outlook 2022 and the Global Fuel Economy Initiative 2021.

  1. The definition of SUVs varies by country, but goes beyond a passenger car with features from off-road vehicles (i.e., 4 X 4). This analysis includes in the Sport-Utility Vehicles category smaller SUVs, known as crossovers, as well as the larger ones. An average SUV in America falls under the large SUVs category but crossovers are the most popular options in the European market.

  2. According to data from Marklines.