France urged to put brakes on booming sales of polluting SUVs


The French arm of the World Wildlife Fund is urging the government to take action against the country’s top-selling SUV cars, which it says have a “crushing impact” on both the climate and household budgets. 

In two reports published Tuesday, the NGO said that over the past decade the “heavy” and “greedy” vehicles had become the second largest source of growth in French emissions – just behind the aviation sector.

SUVs – powerful, large-format passenger cars that combine offload features such as raised ground clearance – have seen growing demand in Europe, the US and China.

Because of their size, they are more fuel-intensive than smaller cars, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) last year warning their popularity could negate the environmental benefits of electric cars.

SUVs are “incompatible with France’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, WWF said, calling on the government to take steps to “reorient the market”.

Booming sales

Largely driven by female demand, SUV sales rocketed to 39 percent of the vehicle market in France in 2019, after starting off at a modest 5 percent a decade earlier. 

Sales are even higher in Paris and the nearby Hauts-de-Seine and Yvelines regions, where nearly one in two new cars is an SUV. 

The alarm bells sounded by the IEA drove WWF-France to pick up the baton, Pierre Cannet, the NGO’s advocacy director, told AFP. “We were struck by it, and we wondered what it meant for France,” he said.

On average, SUVs emit 20 percent more emissions than other cars, WWF said, adding that the 4.3 million SUVs sold in France between 2008 and 2018 had a carbon footprint equivalent to 25 million electric city cars.

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Industry hits back

The Committee of French Automobile Manufacturers (CCFA) was quick to respond to what it said was “a study full of errors” – arguing that while SUV’s had indeed gotten heavier, they were emitting much less CO2.

“Their study is so full of inaccuracies that I don’t even know what to say,” CCFA spokesman François Roudier told FranceInfo radio.

“Almost one in five cars sold in France is an electric car, either fully electric or hybrid … and these cars emit much less CO2 … So, in fact, there is a technological evolution which is not taken into account by the WWF.”

The WWF’s reports, however, dismissed the potential development of electric SUVs as a “false good solution”, saying their carbon footprint was “34 percent higher than that of electric city cars”. 

The NGO is instead pushing the government to help manufacturers make the shift towards “lighter and less climate-damaging” cars.

“The electric SUV is not a solution for the climate,” WWF mobility and transport expert Jean-Baptiste Crohas told FranceInfo. “We have to go for smaller vehicles.”

Tax overhaul?

The NGO is demanding the vehicles be taxed on to their weight rather than their emissions, as is currently the case. Such a move has already been suggested by the Citizen’s Convention for the Climate, but was rejected by the government.

The CCFA opposes a weight tax, arguing that in recent decades vehicles have gained weight for safety reasons: to better resist frontal impacts, and carry new equipment such as airbags.

“Plus the batteries in hybrid SUVs are now very heavy,” a CCFA spokesperson told Le Parisien. “Taxing according to weight would penalise these vehicles.”

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