The continuing popularity of SUV's and an increase in petrol car sales are causing issues for global warming solutions.

Electric cars may be the new big thing, but SUV's and a switch from diesel to petrol are causing new concerns when it comes to environmental protection measures. Dealers here report that there has been a big increase in petrol car choices, particularly among city dwellers who don't need high-mileage diesels.

Many are instead opting for hybrids that use petrol engines. Sales of these increased last year by over 47 per cent. However, the Sunstainable Energy Authority has not accepted that they rank alongside electric cars in pollution terms, as they fall back on a fossil-fuelled engine. Besides, CO 2 emissions will rise significantly if petrol sales continue to increase. 

However, sales of bigger cars - classified as being Jeep or SUV style cars - increased by over four per cent last year, resulting in a total figure of 46,096 units.  Cars with emissions figures over 191 grammes per kilometre increased by 38 per cent and many of them are medium to large SUV's. 

It may well be that many buyers are having their last fling with petrol or diesel before an enforced ban on both comes into effect. The majority of cars imported into Ireland are still diesel from the UK.

Reuters reports that soaring demand for SUVs drove record sales for premium carmakers including BMW and Mercedes last year, leaving the industry on collision course with government efforts to tackle global warming despite big investments in electric vehicles.

BMW said deliveries by its main luxury brand rose 2% to a record 2,168,516 vehicles last year, thanks to a 21% jump in sales of its "X" branded sport-utility vehicles (SUV) which now make up 44% of the BMW brand's global sales.

At Mercedes-Benz, the world’s best selling premium car brand, every third luxury car sold last year was an SUV.

Carmakers across the world are investing billions in electric vehicles to try to meet tougher emissions regulations. But the jury is out on how many drivers will buy them.

"Consumer preferences for SUVs could offset the benefits from electric cars," the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in its November World Energy Outlook 2019 report.

The IEA said a doubling in market share had seen emissions from SUVs grow by nearly 0.55 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) during the last decade to roughly 0.7 gigatons.

As a result, SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector - ahead of heavy industry including iron and steel, cement, aluminum, as well as trucks and aviation, it said.

The Reuters report says there are now more than 200 million SUVs around the world, up from about 35 million in 2010, accounting for 60% of the increase in the global car fleet since 2010, IEA data shows.

"If the popularity of SUVs continues to rise in line with recent trends, this could add another 2 million barrels per day to our projection for 2040 oil demand," it said.

BMW and Mercedes-Benz say their vehicles are among the most fuel efficient available, thanks to hybrid and other technologies which are already available on the market.

Both carmakers, which say they aim to achieve new sales records this year, are preparing to launch fully electric SUVs - the BMW iX3 and Mercedes-Benz EQC - which they say shows a commitment to a cleaner future.

EFFICIENCY GAINS

While acknowledging the growing popularity of SUVs, Germany’s powerful VDA auto industry association said much of the demand was for more efficient models.

"Only just under 5% of SUVs are large luxury class vehicles. The market success of the SUV segment is mainly due to the model offensive in compact and medium-sized SUVs, with correspondingly lower fuel consumption," VDA said on Thursday.

The newly registered SUVs of German group brands had reduced their CO2 emissions by 35% since 2008, it added.

BMW plans to launch 25 hybrid and electric cars by 2023, with more than 12 models being fully electric versions.

By 2025, half of all its cars are expected to be hybrid or electric vehicles, it said.

Daimler-owned Mercedes expects half of its sales to be hybrid or electric by 2030, with Europe reaching the 50% mark in 2025.

Peter Fuss, a partner at EY, said German carmakers pushed sales of higher-margin SUVs last year ahead of the introduction of more stringent European clean air rules in 2020.

In the fourth quarter of 2019 there was an unusually large rise in commercial registrations in Germany, Italy and Britain compared with figures for private consumers, in a sign carmakers were pushing certain models into the market.

"From January 2020 onwards, new car fleets need to adhere to limits so as not to face large fines," Fuss said. "We will not see the same growth rates in this segment as we did last year."

Electric car registrations are expected to take off in mid 2020, Fuss said.

But that will depend on drivers being prepared to buy them, and perhaps also on how cheaply manufacturers are prepared to sell them.