Global Warming
Driving Up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming

SUV's waste energy Switching from driving an average car to a 13mpg SUV for one year would waste more energy than if you...
  • Left your refrigerator door open for 6 years
  • Left your bathroom light burning for 30 years or
  • Left your color television turned on for 28 years

In this report:
The SUV Threat
Energy Security
Take Action


When it comes to wasting energy, SUVs are unrivaled. Built with outdated, gas-guzzling technology, many SUVs get just 13 miles per gallon. And the higher gas prices are, the more money they waste.

Auto-industry advertising portrays SUVs as the ticket to freedom and the great outdoors. Commercials depict them climbing massive snow-capped mountains or tearing through desert sand dunes, taking their owners into the wild. In reality, the only off-road action many of these vehicles see is accidentally driving through a flower bed next to the driveway.

Missing from these ads are other contributions from SUVs—the brown haze of air pollution hanging over many of our national parks, images of weather disasters linked to global warming or the oil derricks and tankers needed to feed gas-guzzling SUVs. In contrast to Detroit's carefully crafted image, SUVs have a dark side. They spew out 43 percent more global-warming pollution and 47 percent more air pollution than an average car. SUVs are four times more likely than cars to roll over in an accident and three times more likely to kill the occupants in a rollover. They also cost the owner thousands more on gasoline.


Worsening the Threat of Global Warming

Because the government classifies SUVs as "light trucks" rather than cars, SUVs have a license to guzzle more gas and pollute more than cars. In 1975, when fuel-economy standards were first adopted, "light truck" referred to a vehicle used to haul hay on the farm or gravel at a construction site. At that time, light trucks comprised only 20 percent of the vehicle market. Today, SUVs, mini-vans and other light trucks make up nearly half of new vehicles sold. They are far more likely to haul lattés home from Starbucks than lumber from the yard. Even though Detroit has technology that could make them both cleaner and safer, SUVs and other light trucks are still held to low environmental standards, roll over more than cars and pose greater danger to other vehicles than cars do.

Welcome to the International Conference on Global Warming

save gas!The world's leading climate scientists have warned that there is now 30 percent more carbon dioxide—the primary global-warming gas—in the atmosphere than a century ago. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of this CO2 pollution. Over the same period of time, the average surface temperature of the earth has risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit.

Due to these changes, we are already seeing signs of global warming. The 1990s was the hottest decade on record and the 11 hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 13 years.

Extreme drought conditions and changing rainfall patterns have occurred across the country, setting the stage for wildfires, which decimated areas from Florida to California. Record heat waves have killed hundreds in Chicago and infectious-disease outbreaks linked to global warming have sickened or killed hundreds from Texas to New York, shut down Disney World and re-introduced Americans to dengue fever, malaria and encephalitis. Sea levels have risen between four and 10 inches and glacial ice is rapidly retreating on five continents.

The world's leading scientists warn that over the 21st century, CO2 levels are expected to double, raising sea levels two feet or more, worsening smog and leaving our children to cope with a more hostile climate.

America's cars and light trucks alone produce nearly 20 percent of U.S. CO2 pollution. That's more than all but four countries worldwide! And transportation is the fastest-growing sector of global-warming pollution in the nation. Popular light trucks pump out 237 million tons of global-warming pollution into our atmosphere each year. That's because every gallon of gas burned emits 28 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

SUVs Emit More Air Pollution Than Cars

Nearly 117 million Americans live in areas where the air is unhealthy to breathe, according to the American Lung Association. Light trucks, which can spew up to three times more smog-forming pollution than cars, magnify this growing health threat. The increased air pollution can lead to more asthma, bronchitis and other health problems.

U.S. autos emit more CO2 than all but four countries.

Top 5 Global-Warming Polluters:

  1. U.S.
  2. China
  3. Russia
  4. Japan
  5. U.S. autos

Air pollution is not exclusively an urban problem. National parks from Maine's Acadia to Virginia's Shenandoah and North Carolina's Great Smokey Mountains all have severe air-pollution problems that match major metropolitan areas. Pollution monitors are now installed at some trailheads in Mt. Rainier National Park to warn hikers when smog reaches unsafe levels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted new "Tier 2" tailpipe pollution standards in 1999 to cut smog (but not CO2) from cars and SUVs. However, these rules will not go into effect until 2004 and the auto industry has until 2009 to clean up its largest SUVs.

The More You Guzzle, The More You Pollute
Represented below is the total tonnage of CO2 produced by SUVs and other vehicles over a 124,000-mile lifetime.

Ford Excursion (13 mpg)

Jeep Grand Cherokee (18 mpg)

Ford Taurus (23 mpg)

Honda Civic HX (36 mpg)

Honda Insight (65 mpg)

SUVs Increase Our Oil Addiction, Threaten Our Wilderness and Coasts

SUVs and Oil DependenceA hidden cost of SUVs is the price we pay with our natural resources. To keep these gas guzzlers running, oil companies seek to drill in new areas—including some of our nation's most sensitive wilderness habitats. As the number of gas guzzlers on the road grows, so does the pressure to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—one of the last remaining pristine ecosystems. Fragile coastlines in California and Florida, and lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park are also targets for drilling.

The Exxon Valdez disaster serves as a powerful reminder that transporting oil also threatens our environment. Smaller spills and leaks occur daily, putting waterways and wildlife at risk.

Worsening our Energy Security

Every day America consumes 18 million barrels of oil. We import nearly half of this oil (the same amount guzzled by cars and light trucks) from politically volatile regions. Our oil imports add $50 billion to the U.S. trade deficit annually. Due to the increasing number of gas-guzzling vehicles, America is more dependent on foreign oil now than we were at the height of the 1973 energy crisis.

Congress passed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 1975 to reduce our dangerous oil dependence. This doubled the fuel economy of America's vehicle fleet, saving 3 million barrels of oil per day. However, the oil savings from CAFE standards are being eroded by people driving farther and the rising proportion of inefficient SUVs and other light trucks. In fact, the average fuel economy of new vehicles has sunk to the lowest level since 1980. Raising the CAFE standard for light trucks to equal that of cars (27.5 mpg) would save 1 million barrels of oil per day. We can do even better. Raising the average for cars to 45 mpg and light trucks to 34 mpg would save 3 million barrels of oil per day.

Lowest Fleet Fuel Economy Average Since 1980
The fuel economy average for both cars and trucks is at its lowest pint since 1980. (US EPA Light-Duty Automotive Tecnology and Fuel Economy Trends Through 1999, Spet. 1999)

Fuel Graph

Available technology and higher mileage standards could make the popular Ford Explorer a 34.1 mpg vehicle, rather than a 19.3 mpg guzzler, without compromising performance or safety. This "improved" Explorer could emit 43 percent less global-warming pollution and 76 percent less smog-forming pollution and cost only $935 more. Consumers would save several times this at the gas pump over the life of the vehicle.

Industry Foot-Dragging and Excuses

History shows that automakers won't improve the environmental performance of their products unless they are required to put technology to work. Raising CAFE standards is the key to cleaning up SUVs and other light trucks.

In 1974, a Ford official testified before Congress that CAFE standards would "result in a Ford product line consisting of either all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick." Today, automakers use similar arguments against improving CAFE standards for SUVs. The claim wasn't true then; it isn't true today. Eighty-six percent of the fuel-economy improvements for cars have resulted from improved technologies such as more efficient engines and transmissions and better aerodynamics.

In July 2000, Ford promised to use technology that will improve its SUVs' fuel economy by 25 percent over five years. General Motors pledged to exceed Ford's light-truck fuel economy. Keeping these promises will begin the process of cleaning up SUVs.

But Detroit continues to fight higher CAFE standards for light trucks and cars, which would guarantee these and other improvements. The auto industry has taken its fight to Congress, getting its friends to fight legislation that would increase fuel economy. Beginning in 1995, Congress froze CAFE standards at levels set decades ago.


Americans Deserve Vehicles That Are Both Safe and Clean

Detroit opposes CAFE standards, claiming that they cannot make a safe, clean SUV. Contrary to the auto industry's arguments, CAFE standards don't dictate automobile size or safety. Design, not weight, is the key to both safety and fuel economy. Engineering and safety features like airbags and crush-resistant roofs can ensure that vehicles absorb crash forces so occupants don't. Crash-test results show that automakers are making safe and unsafe cars of all sizes. In a standard head-on crash test into a wall, occupants of a 1997 Ford Expedition faced greater risk of injury or death than occupants of a 1997 Saturn subcompact. This is because the Saturn has crashworthiness designed into it and the Expedition does not.

"Ford Motor Company, which depends on sport utility vehicles for much of its profit... said that the vehicles contribute more than cars to global warming, emitted more smog-causing pollution and endangered other motorists."

New York Times, May 12, 2000

The same industry claimed the original CAFE law was a threat to highway safety, battled automotive safety improvements from seatbelts to airbags and continues to fight a rollover standard. The fact is that since 1975 CAFE standards doubled fuel economy and the rate of highway fatalities fell by 50 percent.

The SUV Safety Story: Rollovers and Dangers to Others on the Road

Here's what the New York Times said about SUV safety (July 15, 1999): "Because it is taller, heavier and more rigid, an SUV or a pickup is more than twice as likely as a car to kill the driver of the other vehicle in a collision. Yet partly because these so-called light trucks roll over so often, their occupants have roughly the same chance as car occupants of dying in a crash."

SUVs give a false impression of safety. With their height and comparatively narrow tire-track width, SUVs handle and maneuver much less effectively than cars. Emergency swerves to avoid a crash can themselves lead to rollover accidents in SUVs, which are four times more likely to roll over in an accident. Rollovers account for 62 percent of SUV deaths but only 22 percent in cars. Yet automakers continue to fight new standards that would protect occupants in rollover accidents.

Because SUVs are built on high, stiff frames, their bumpers ride above the occupant-protecting frame of cars. When an SUV and a car collide, this height difference, combined with the stiff battering-ram frame and greater mass, create a lethal weapon.

According to a government study, in 1996 "at least 2,000 car occupants would not have been killed, had their cars collided with other cars instead of trucks of the same weight." And SUVs are also more deadly to pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists than cars, in part because existing braking standards for SUVs are weaker than for cars.

Originally posted at

The Sierra Club, 2001