SUVs and trucks now account for four in five new cars sold in the U.S.

More farsighted Norway, a global standout in electric-vehicle adoption, is replacing its EV subsidies with support for people walking and biking, while also considering a car-weight tax to nudge purchasers away from the bulkiest electric cars. A recent article in Nature endorsed such weight-based EV fees.

With the ongoing loophole, automakers realized they could make bigger vehicles, charge more for them, and follow these more lax standards. The SUV and pickup boom has meant billions in annual profits for automakers and more emissions from those vehicles that, by and large, do the same job as the family sedans and wagons of yesteryear. They also make roads less safe, as bigger vehicles are associated with higher rates of traffic fatalities for drivers, passengerspedestrians, and cyclists. Currently, automakers must hit a fleet-wide target for cars of 181 grams of CO2 emitted per mile, but 261 for light trucks, a 36 percent difference. By 2026, cars must average out to 132 grams of CO2 per mile compared with 187 for light trucks, a 34 percent difference. Under Biden’s rules, car companies will continue to be able to pollute more with the vehicles they sell the most of.

Jan 1, 2023, The Atlantic – For decades, the car industry has exploited a loophole in federal fuel-economy rules to replace sedans with more profitable SUVs and trucks (allowing higher emissions for passenger vehicles not called cars). Now SUVs and trucksaccount for four in five new cars sold in the United States.

Meanwhile, SUVs and trucks have themselves grown more massive; their weight increased by 7 percent for SUVs and 32% for trucks from 1990 to 2021. The 2023 Ford F-150 with a conventional engine, for instance, is up to 7 inches taller and 800 pounds heavier than its 1991 counterpart. Each purchase of a big truck or SUV pushes other people to buy one, too, in order to avoid being at a disadvantage in a crash or when trying to see over other cars on the highway.

This shift toward ever-larger trucks and SUVs has endangered everyone not inside of one, especially those unprotected by tons of metal. A recent study linked the growing popularity of SUVs in the United States to the surging number of pedestrian deaths, which reached a 40-year high in 2021. (JustinTyndall, Pedestrian deaths and large vehicles, in Economics of Transportation, Volumes 26–27, June–September 2021, 100219, found that metropolitan areas with more growth in large vehicles suffered greater rates of pedestrian fatalities and that there was no evidence that the shift towards larger vehicles improved aggregate motorist safety. Estimated that between 2000 and 2019, that replacing the growth in Sport Utility Vehicles with cars would have averted 1,100 pedestrian deaths. )

A particular problem is that the height of these vehicles expands their blind spots. In a segment this summer, a Washington, D.C., television news channel sat nine children in a line in front of an SUV; the driver could see none of them, because nothing within 16 feet of the front of the vehicle was visible to her.

Few car shoppers seem to care. For decades, Americans have shown little inclination to consider how their vehicle affects the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, or other motorists. (The federal government seems similarly uninterested; the national crash-test-ratings program evaluates only the risk to a car’s occupants.)

As large as gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks are, their electrified versions are even heftier due to the addition of huge batteries. The forthcoming electric Chevrolet Silverado EV, for example, will weigh about 8,000 pounds3,000 more than the current gas-powered version. And there will be a lot of these behemoths:recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that carmakers are rapidly shifting their EV lineups away from sedans and toward SUVs and trucks, just as they did earlier with gas-powered cars.

The danger rises further after accounting for EVs’ unprecedented power. “This sucker is quick!” President Joe Biden exclaimed after taking a Ford F-150 Lightning for a spin last year. He was right: The truck can accelerate from zero to 60 miles an hour in under four seconds, about a second faster than an F-150 running on gasoline.

Car buyers have used zero-to-60 speeds as a proxy for performance ever since the car salesman and automotive journalist Tom McCahill began measuring them after World War II. But the metric is dangerously ill-suited for the faster propulsion of electric powertrains, which are more efficient and contain fewer components than gas engines. The Tesla Plaid Model S, for example, can reach 60 mph in 1.99 seconds, a new record for production cars and far faster than even luxury gas-powered sports cars such as the Porsche 911 (2.8 seconds).

At the risk of stating the obvious, such blistering acceleration serves no practical purpose on a public road, where it can jeopardize everyone’s safety. In Europe, an auto insurer recently linked EVs’ quick pickup speeds to an uptick in crashes. Once again, the most vulnerable street users bear particular risk: A 2018 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that hybrid vehicles, which, like EVs, can accelerate more quickly than gas-powered cars, were 10 percent more likely to injure a pedestrian than their gas-powered equivalents. Superfast acceleration also compromises the efficiency of an electric battery, reducing its range. Nevertheless, car companies are emphasizing acceleration rates in their EV-marketing pitches, such as the Chevrolet Blazer’s “Wide Open Watts Mode.”

As automakers design faster, bigger cars, they are squandering a chance to make EVs safer than their predecessors. Without a gasoline engine under its hood, the Ford F-150 Lightning could have been equipped with a sloping front end that would have reduced danger to others in a crash. Instead, Ford retained the high hood of its F-150, declaring the now vacant space beneath it a “frunk.” That decision was a missed opportunity for roadway safety, but it made sense when viewed through a business lens; few truck buyers are seeking a model that protects those outside their vehicle.

Indeed, carmakers are likely to claim that their EV designs and marketing pitches merely reflect the size and speed that Americans seek when considering their next vehicle. The electrification of America’s vehicle fleet will happen faster, one could argue, the more consumers view EVs as objects of desire, rather than as obligatory concessions to the greater good. But such claims treat car demand as fixed, overlooking ways in which carmakers’ multibillion-dollar advertising budgets shape consumer preferences. Anyway, why should consumer preferences trump the deadly risks posed by unnecessarily fast and heavy EVs?

Although other road users’ safety won’t tilt many EV-purchase decisions, shoppers are more likely to care about another societal impact: climate-change mitigation. Gas-powered cars and trucks have accounted for about a fifth of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, but today’s carmakers are eager to adopt a green halo. Ford has vowed to become carbon neutral (albeit in three decades from now), while GM has made “zero emissions” a centerpiece of its corporate mission.

Because they do not produce tailpipe emissions, electric cars are less polluting than otherwise identical gas-powered models. But EVs still create emissions in other ways, notably from the electricity required to build them and charge their batteries. Such energy needs rise dramatically for the biggest cars: According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the 9,063-pound GMC Hummer EV contributes more emissions per mile than a gas-powered Chevrolet Malibu.

Worse yet, enormous EVs are compounding the global shortage of essential battery minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and nickel. That Hummer EV’s battery weighs as much as a Honda Civic, consuming precious material that could otherwise be used to build several electric-sedan batteries—or a few hundred e-bike batteries. One recent study found that electrifying SUVs could actually increase emissions by restricting the batteries available for smaller electric cars.

That reality is inconvenient for size-obsessed automakers, as well as for certain image-oriented EV buyers, the kind The Onion skewered for believing that “driving one makes up for every bad thing you’ve ever done in your life” (including, presumably, draping your electric charging cord across the sidewalk).

Even modest-size electric cars are not a climate panacea. A 2020 study by University of Toronto scholars found that electrification of automobiles cannot prevent a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 without a concurrent shift toward cleaner travel modes such as public transportation and bicycles. Aware of that need, Norway, a global standout in electric-vehicle adoption, is replacing its EV subsidies with support for people walking and biking, while also considering a car-weight tax to nudge purchasers away from the bulkiest electric cars. A recent article in Nature endorsed such weight-based EV fees.

The United States is not as farsighted. The Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed in August includes a tax credit of up to $7,500 for those buying an electric car with a price tag below $55,000; in an implicit incentive to buy a larger vehicle, eligible SUVs can cost as much as $88,000 and still qualify. The new law offers nothing for buyers of e-bikes, e-cargo bikes, or electric golf carts—all of which produce a fraction of the emissions of an electric car while posing much less danger to road users. Americans require little encouragement to buy an SUV or truck; what the country needs are policies that nudge them toward vehicles that are less dangerous to the planet and to other travelers. Instead of capitalizing on electrification in that way, policy makers are further codifying the supremacy of the biggest, most dangerous automobiles.

Car executives, whose supercharged electric behemoths play to Americans’ worst instincts, are surely grateful. But the rest of us shouldn’t be.

David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.


Biden’s New Fuel Economy Standards Still Allow Cars to Pollute More If They’re Not Called Cars

The “light truck” loophole for pickups and SUVs that allow them to pollute more than other cars. By Aaron Gordon December 20, 2021, Vice and Bloomberg

Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.SEE MORE →

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency released new fuel economy standards that call for car companies to achieve a fleet average of 40 miles per gallon by 2026, up from the Trump administration’s proposal of 32 miles per gallon.* The Biden administration is celebrating this as a win for the climate and for people who will spend less money on gas. 

While it is true that the new standards are better than the Trump ones, they keep a glaring loophole on the books that has been among the single greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the US over the last 30 years. While the details are a bit technical, the upshot is the Biden administration is presenting yet another policy as a victory in the fight against climate change when it is a marginal improvement at best and fails to correct one of the most glaring policy issues that has made climate change worse.

The loophole in question is the one that permits larger vehicles to pollute more, specifically by classifying vans, pickups, SUVs, and even some “crossovers,” depending on their characteristics, as “light duty trucks.” Not only does this category include obviously huge vehicles like the Chevy Suburban, Cadillac Escalade, or Ford F-150, but it also includes many smaller family vehicles like the Subaru Outback, Toyota RAV4, and Honda CR-V. Most absurdly, “medium duty passenger vehicles,” or MDPVs, are also categorized as “light trucks” for emissions purposes, even though they can weigh up to 10,000 pounds.

This loophole dates back to 1975, when such large vehicles barely existed. At the time, the rule made some sense, because nobody in their right mind would have wanted to drive such a massive, expensive, gas-guzzling vehicle just for the hell of it. Larger vehicles that have jobs to do like haul big, heavy things necessarily need to be bigger and will therefore have basic limitations on how good their fuel economy can be. Plus, climate change wasn’t even a known thing back then. As such, making different rules for those cars at the time wasn’t the craziest idea. 

But over the ensuing decades, automakers realized they could make bigger vehicles, charge more for them, and follow these more lax standards. The SUV and pickup boom has meant billions in annual profits for automakers and more emissions from those vehicles that, by and large, do the same job as the family sedans and wagons of yesteryear. They also make roads less safe, as bigger vehicles are associated with higher rates of traffic fatalities for drivers, passengerspedestrians, and cyclists.

The light duty loophole has long been recognized as a major incentive contributing to the supersizing of American vehicles. A 2009 study found that if vehicle weight, horsepower, and torque held steady at 1980 levels, passenger cars and light truck fuel economy would have increased by 50 percent by 2006 due to innovations and technological improvement. Instead, because vehicles got bigger and more powerful, fuel economy increased by only 15 percent over that same time. But the EPA’s own research misidentifies the cause of the gigantification of US vehicles as a “market shift” rather than a clear response to incentives set by its own agency.

Although the “light duty” classification once made some sense, it clearly no longer does. The majority of Americans drive light duty vehicles. These “light duty” vehicles are typically the most popular cars sold year in, year out. To highlight the absurdity, the actual definition no longer distinguishes between different vehicles, but only between different trims. Certain popular models like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 don’t squarely fit in one category or another, depending on whether the specific trim in question has two-wheel drive or four wheel drive and other optional packages. 

But the rule has tremendous implications for fuel economy standards car companies must hit. automakers realized they could make bigger vehicles, charge more for them, and follow these more lax standards. The SUV and pickup boom has meant billions in annual profits for automakers and more emissions from those vehicles that, by and large, do the same job as the family sedans and wagons of yesteryear. They also make roads less safe, as bigger vehicles are associated with higher rates of traffic fatalities for drivers, passengerspedestrians, and cyclists.

Currently, automakers must hit a fleet-wide target for cars of 181 grams of CO2 emitted per mile, but 261 for light trucks, a 36 percent difference. By 2026, cars must average out to 132 grams of CO2 per mile compared with 187 for light trucks, a 34 percent difference. Under Biden’s rules, car companies will continue to be able to pollute more with the vehicles they sell the most of.

In its fact sheet regarding the rule change, the EPA said it plans to also “initiate a future rulemaking to establish multi-pollutant emission standards for MY [model year] 2027 and beyond.” Whether that future rule addresses the light duty loophole—or whether it survives the climate policy seesawing that has defined the executive branch over the last decade—is still up in the air.
The EPA sets the emissions rules by measuring grams of CO2 emitted per mile. It then converts that number into MPG-equivalencies so people can get some idea what this means for fuel economy. But it’s a messy conversion, as CO2 emissions and fuel economy are not the same thing; a car can get better fuel economy through other efficiencies than emitting less CO2. So, the EPA puts out two “MPG equivalent” numbers. One assumes emissions standards “are met exclusively by reducing tailpipe CO2.” For this rule, that number is 55 MPG and is the one most widely reported in other outlets. The other, lower number is “comparable to what a consumer would see on a fuel economy label and reflects real-world impacts on GHG emissions and fuel economy that are not captured by the compliance tests, including high speed driving, air conditioning usage, and cold temperatures.” We are choosing to use this number as it doesn’t set false expectations and is more realistic about how people actually use their cars.TAGGED:REGULATIONSBIDEN ADMINISTRATIONLIGHT TRUCK LOOPHOLEMOVEABLE EPA

** USA Today 2019

Two of the auto industry’s most hulking SUVs, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Chevrolet Suburban, are growing in size for the 2021 model year.

For customers, that means more headroom, more legroom and more space to haul stuff.

For automakers, that means more profits because large SUVs are among the industry’s biggest moneymakers, rivaled only by full-size pickups, which are also getting bigger.

Other SUVs, like the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Expedition, have been getting longer and larger, too.

Size creep,” is how Stephanie Brinley, principle automotive analyst at research firm IHS Markit, describes it. “When you go out and do clinics on almost any vehicle and you ask what people want, they almost always say they want more space,” Brinley says.

The trend comes as the nation’s SUV boom continues. Steadily low gasoline prices are providing Americans with confidence that they won’t get stuck with gas guzzlers during a sudden spike in fuel prices.

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No pain at the pump

The national average price of gas hasn’t topped $3 since 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That reality, coupled with the rock-bottom unemployment rate and record stock prices, has benefited SUV sales.

It also doesn’t hurt that SUV gas mileage has improved across the board.

Among all SUVs, 28 vehicles in the 2020 model year get at least 30 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving, compared with only one model in 2000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“With low gas prices, nobody cares how big they are really, and the fuel economy has improved, too,” says Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at car-buying site Autotrader.

Another factor driving the trend: Americans are getting older, and SUVs are generally easier to climb into than low-riding passenger cars, analysts say.

General Motors reveals the new 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe at the Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.

That’s one reason why GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler have discontinued most of their passenger cars, such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Chrysler 200, while sales of other cars that were once stalwarts have plummeted.

When 2019 is over, about half of new-vehicle sales in the U.S. will have been SUVs, according to projections by car-research site Edmunds. Passenger cars will represent about one-third of those sales, while pickups should comprise the rest.

To capitalize on the boom, automakers have also been introducing more SUV models, including three-row options from Subaru, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen for the first time.

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Tahoe grows 18 inches

To keep customers buying its big SUVs, GM announced earlier this month that it had stretched out the Tahoe and Suburban SUVs. The 2021 Tahoe is 6.7 inches longer than the 2020 model, which is a huge leap in an industry in which 1 or 2 inches can make a significant visual difference. And its wheelbase adds 4.9 inches.

That extra size has increased the vehicle’s maximum cargo room by 29.8%.

It’s the latest in a series of increases. From the 1999 model to the 2021 model, GM added 17.7 inches in length to the Tahoe.

Ford has added 11 inches to the length of its Tahoe rival, the Ford Expedition SUV, since 1999, according to Edmunds.

There are dollar signs behind the increases.

The average full-size SUV sold for $67,681 from June through November, compared with $36,856 for the average full-size car, according to Cox Automotive, which owns Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. The average midsize SUV sold for $39,278 during the same period, compared with $26,244 for the average midsize car.

“As the competitors grow in size, they want to make sure they protect this cash cow that they’ve got here,” Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said of GM.

A bigger midsize

The size race is not limited to the traditional Detroit Three automakers.

When Japanese automaker Toyota revealed its redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander at the New York Auto Show this year, it crowed about the extra size in its bigger SUV. The Highlander has added 10.9 inches in length since its debut in 2001, including adding a third row.

At 194.9 inches, the 2020 Highlander is longer than the 193-inch 1999 Chevy Tahoe.

And it’s not just the industry’s biggest SUVs adding size. The most popular SUV in the country – the Toyota RAV4 midsize SUV – has added 14 inches to its wheelbase from 1999 to 2019.

“People are willing to pay more for bigger vehicles,” Caldwell said.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.


Electrification of light-duty vehicle fleet alone will not meet mitigation targets

Nature Climate Change volume 10, pages1102–1107 (2020)Cite this article

Climate change mitigation strategies are often technology-oriented, and electric vehicles (EVs) are a good example of something believed to be a silver bullet. Here we show that current US policies are insufficient to remain within a sectoral CO2 emission budget for light-duty vehicles, consistent with preventing more than 2 °C global warming, creating a mitigation gap of up to 19 GtCO2 (28% of the projected 2015–2050 light-duty vehicle fleet emissions). Closing the mitigation gap solely with EVs would require more than 350 million on-road EVs (90% of the fleet), half of national electricity demand and excessive amounts of critical materials to be deployed in 2050. Improving average fuel consumption of conventional vehicles, with stringent standards and weight control, would reduce the requirement for alternative technologies, but is unlikely to fully bridge the mitigation gap. There is therefore a need for a wide range of policies that include measures to reduce vehicle ownership and usage.

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.Decarbonization scenarios and carbon reduction potential for China’s road transportation by 2060

Quanying Lu

, Hongbo Duan

 … Shouyang Wangnpj Urban Sustainability Open Access 31 December 2022

Decarbonization scenarios and carbon reduction potential for China’s road transportation by 2060

npj Urban Sustainability volume 2, Article number: 34 (2022) Cite this article


The transportation sector is a crucial source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the degree of its low-carbon transformation is closely related to the achievement of China’s carbon neutrality. Based on high-frequency passenger vehicle sales data and motor vehicle real-time monitoring big data, we developed a low-carbon transition planning model of China road transport (CRT-LCTP) to explore the pathways toward carbon neutrality. The study found that although the number of new energy vehicles (NEVs) increased four times from 2016 to 2019, the average annual growth rate of road traffic emissions was still as high as 20.5%. The current transportation electrification may only reduce 0.6% of the total emissions in this sector, and it could be increased to 1.4% if the electricity completely came from clean energy. Under the enhanced policy scenario, the transport sector could peak its carbon emissions at around of 2030, with the peak level being 1330.98 Mt. Transportation electrification along could not meet the climate targets in 2060, and the continued inertia of fuel vehicles will slow the path of the road transport toward carbon neutrality, which depends on the forced elimination of fuel vehicles and more substantive decarbonization measures.


China is currently the world’s largest energy-consuming and carbon-emitting country, accounting for 30.7% of the world’s total carbon emissions in 20201. The transportation sector, especially road transport, is a major contributor to this situation2,3,4. The number of private cars in China increased rapidly from 65 million in 2010 to 244 million in 2020, with an average annual growth rate of 14.14%5,6. This has led to a dramatic increase in carbon emissions from China’s transport sector from 248 Mt in 2000 to 950 Mt in 2020, accounting for 9% of the country’s total carbon emissions7,8. With continued economic growth and rapid urbanization, energy demand and carbon emissions from China’s transportation industry are expected to grow9, which may make transportation sector the only sector that cannot reach the peak as scheduled7,8,10, and poses severe challenges to the low-carbon transition of the transportation sector11.

Electrification is widely recognized as a powerful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of transportation12,13,14. Actually, China has ranked first in the world in terms of production, sales, and ownership of NEVs since 2015 (see Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2). and in 2020, the number of NEVs in China reached 4.92 million, accounting for 1.75% of the total number of vehicles (see Supplementary Fig. 3)15,16. However, to the best of our knowledge, scarcity of studies systematically assessed the emission reduction potential of China’s road transport and the contribution of electrification. The extant research mainly focuses on analyzing the life-cycle GHG emissions of electric vehicles and the associated economic17,18,19 and environmental benefits20,21. In addition, the quality of energy consumption and fuel efficiency statistics in China’s transportation sector is much lower than that in developed countries, which dramatically affects the scientific nature of carbon emissions accounting22. As a result, most studies estimated the carbon emissions of road traffic sector using top-down macro frameworks based on annual data from statistical yearbooks, which largely biased the estimation of emissions23,24,25.

On this basis, we develop a bottom-up microaccounting framework and construct a cross-city vehicle stock (different vehicle classes and fuel types) and CO2 emission database of China’s road transport sector, based on high-frequency passenger car sales data from 2016 to 2019. Further, this paper estimates each vehicle type’s actual fuel consumption per 100 km by sampling millions of real-time monitoring data of passenger cars in BearOil app (including different brands, fuel types, and vehicle types), which dramatically reduces the error of CO2 emission accounting, compared with the existing research using the rough macro data. By developing the CRT-LCTP model, we finally design three decarbonization scenarios of low-carbon transportation transition, estimate the carbon reduction contribution of different policy measures, and assess the difficulty and policy intensity to achieve the “dual carbon” goals (carbon peaking in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060). The skeleton of this work is portrayed in Fig. 1.

figure 1
Fig. 1: Framework of high-frequency CO2 accounting and decarbonization scenario analysis.


China’s NEVs diffusion and emission estimation: space perspective

As shown in Fig. 2, at the national level, under the support of incentives, the number of NEVs is significantly increasing. In 2016, the stock of NEVs increased from 0.98 million in 2016 to 3.81 million in 2019, with an average annual growth rate of 57.27%. The development of NEVs presents a significant combined effect at the regional level. In 2016, the numbers of NEVs in the eastern, central, and western regions were 643.81 thousand, 19.80 thousand, and 13.88 thousand, respectively, and these values increased to 2.57 billion, 819.1 thousand, and 423.7 thousand in 2019, with annual growth rates of 58.66, 60.52, and 45.07%, respectively. There were only four cities surpassing the threshold of 50,000 NEVs in 2016, and the number increased to 15 in 2019, and these cities are all located in the eastern and central regions, except for Chengdu, Chongqing, and Liuzhou (Supplementary Notes 1 and 2). The higher growth of NEV stocks in the eastern and central regions is mainly due to their higher economic development, excellent supporting facilities, and stronger consumer market demand.

figure 2
Fig. 2: Distribution of NEV stock and estimation of CO2 emissions for China passenger road transport 2016–2019.

The CO2 emissions of road passenger transport show a significant increasing trend, as shown in Fig. 2, with corresponding emissions increasing from 414.59 Mt in 2016 to 725.77 Mt in 2019 and presenting an average annual growth rate of 20.5%. At the regional level, the eastern coastal regions contribute half of the country’s total road traffic emissions, followed by the central and western regions. Actually, the majority of the top 10 city emitters are located in the eastern and central regions, except the typical new first-tier cities, i.e., Chengdu and Chongqing (Supplementary Note 2). The high levels of economic development and per capita vehicle stock (mainly traditional fuel vehicles) could tell most of the story. By contrast, the rapid development of transportation infrastructure construction, e.g., high-speed roads, partially explains the high growth rate of road traffic emissions in the central and western regions. Along with the expectation of economic prosperity, carbon emissions in these regions could greatly increase in the future without substantial electrification.

China’s NEVs development paths and CO2 estimation: time perspective

We could observe different time features between the sales of traditional fuel vehicles and NEVs, as portrayed in Fig. 3. During the period, the average annual growth rate of gasoline vehicles and diesel vehicles dropped by −6.25 and −4.80%, respectively. In contrast, NEV sales, particularly battery electric vehicles (BEVs), increased year by year, with an average annual growth rate of 45.76%. The annual sales peak of NEVs is in the second half of the year, especially in December at which time most promotion activities happened (Fig. 3a). In addition, every July is the liquidation time of the previous year’s new energy subsidies and the earliest month of the preallocation funds for the sales of NEVs in that year, which also explains the surge in NEV sales in the second half of the year. This indicates the significant role of policy incentives in the prosperity of NEV market26.

figure 3
Fig. 3: Month-to-month sales, CO2 emissions, and carbon reduction due to vehicle electrification for China’s road passenger transport.

We also estimated CO2 emissions from vehicles with different fuel types and their differences over time, as shown in Fig. 3c,d. Obviously, gasoline vehicles have the largest carbon emissions, followed by diesel vehicles, BEVs, PHEVs, and HEVs, which are jointly determined by vehicles’ stock, sales, and fuel economy with different fuel types. In terms of time scale, summer and winter are the peak emission periods of the year, especially winter, at which time residents are more likely to choose private cars, taxis or online car-hailing to meet their travel needs than public transportation. Actually, the number of online car-hailing users in China reached 400 million in 201927, and the large-scale development of online car hailing may have an induced effect of emissions. Although the improvement in the road traffic sharing level reduces car purchase intention to a some extent28, the total mileage of trips does not significantly decrease, which leads to an increase in carbon emissions29,30,31. It is therefore also vital to promote the electrification of online car-hailing services32.

The emission reduction potential of road transport electrification mainly comes from the difference in emission intensity between electric vehicles and traditional fuel vehicles33. Basically, we assume that the electricity consumed comes from thermal power by default, according to the current situation. As shown in Fig. 3ef, the emission reduction caused by vehicle electrification shows a significant increase trend. From 0.94 Mt in 2016 to 4.00 Mt in 2019, the average annual growth rate reached 61.81%. If all the electricity consumed by electric cars comes from clean sources, such as hydropower, then the reductions will expand to 1.81 Mt in 2016 and 10.14 Mt in 2019. Figure 3d also shows the emission reduction potential of different classes, and we find that MCC and MHCC gasoline cars (engine displacement in the range of 1.6–4 L) have the largest potential of carbon reduction, given its dominant role in passenger car consumption. This emphasizes the significance of regulating high-emission vehicle sales to control road traffic emissions (see Supplementary Note 3 for more details).

Relationships among vehicle stock, CO2 emissions, and economic development

The level of economic development of a region largely determines the purchasing power of consumers, which in turn determines the car stock and sales and related carbon emissions. Generally, the higher the per capita GDP is, the higher the vehicle stock and the associated carbon emissions25,34. Compared with 2016, in 2019, the average per capita GDP growth of the 11 provincial capital cities in eastern China was 16.15% (Fig. 4). However, the stock of passenger cars and their CO2 emissions reached 37.6% and 70.2%, respectively. This is particularly true for Guangzhou and Beijing, despite the rapid expansion of motor vehicles in Beijing has been restricted by policies such as lottery and driving restrictions (Supplementary Note 4). Overall, the average per capita GDP growth rate of provincial capitals in the central region is 2.22% higher than that of provincial capitals in the eastern region. This is also true for the growth rates of vehicle ownership and CO2 emissions. To be specific, Wuhan has the most significant increase in CO2 emissions, as high as 2207%, while Zhengzhou is the largest emitter owing to the so-called “stock” effect of motors (Zhengzhou ranks first in terms of vehicle ownership in the central provinces, Fig. 2).

figure 4
Fig. 4: Relation dynamics of road passenger stock, GDP per capita (2008 = 100), and CO2 emissions from 2016 to 2019.

In contrast, the western region had the most significant increase in per capita GDP during the studied period, with an average increase of 19.7% in all provincial capitals. The rise in passenger car stock and its carbon emissions is larger than that in the eastern region but smaller than that in the central region. The relations among vehicle stock, CO2, and economic growth are true in most western cities, except Xi’an and Lanzhou. Actually, economic growth of the two provincial capitals was slow, but their vehicle ownership and carbon emissions have grown enormously, and this situation also occurs in typical eastern cities, like Shenyang, Hangzhou, Tianjin, and Jinan. This provides evidence that economic development is not always positively and linearly related to residents’ willingness and ability to purchase a car.

From a national perspective, we observe a highly positive correlation between passenger car ownership and per capita GDP (Fig. 4d), and the relationship between the two gradually strengthened over the period. In 2016, an extra 1% increase in per capita GDP is associated with a 8.2% increase in passenger vehicles, and this value increased to 9.4% in 2019. Given a lower car ownership per thousand people in China (compared with the developed economies) and a sustained economic growth expectation, residents’ willingness to buy motor vehicles will dramatically increase in the future. In addition, the restriction policy does alleviate road congestion caused by fuel vehicles to a certain extent, but in the long run, whether it effectively reduces CO2 emissions and air pollutants is still controversial35,36,37,38. Therefore, how to coordinate economic growth with structural adjustment in the automobile industry (vehicle electrification) is of great significance to long-term low-carbon transformation of the traffic sector.

Low-carbon transition pathways of road transportation

By developing a CRT-LCTP model, we study the low-carbon transition pathways of China’s road transport across various scenarios (see “Methods” and Scenario setting), and the results are portrayed in Fig. 5a. As the number of traditional fuel vehicles increases, China’s road transport CO2 emissions will increase significantly. Under the BAU scenario, China’s road transport CO2 emissions will increase from 1340.80 Mt in 2020 to 1683.66 Mt in 2030, with an annual growth rate of approximately 2.3%. The emissions will peak in 2058, corresponding to the peak level of 2563.08 Mt. However, the peak time could be advanced to 2045 and 2034, respectively under the CPS and TPS, despite they are still later than the committed 2030. Thus, peak the emissions of transport sector in time depends on more intensified policies. Indeed, when moving to the most stringent scenario, i.e., the EPS, road traffic emissions can peak in 2031, roughly consistent with the promised time of the NDC target, and the corresponding peak level is reduced by 48.3% relative to the BAU scenario.

figure 5
Fig. 5: CO2 emissions pathways (2020–2060) and distribution of carbon mitigation contribution (2060) for China’s road transportation.

From Fig. 5bd, we find that the maximum contribution of emission reduction under the three policy scenarios all comes from the stock adjustment, and the contribution levels are 75.15, 63.74, and 59.57%, respectively. The contribution of electrification increases significantly with the strengthening of policy intensity, from 17.61% under the CPS to approximately 33.10% under the EPS. The contribution of technological progress, such as fuel efficiency improvement, to emission reduction is relatively limited, with an average level of approximately 2%, and it is much lower than that of ‘Other’ factors, i.e., 5–16% on average.

Overall, due to the persistence of traditional fuel vehicles (Supplementary Fig. 4), it is difficult to achieve net-zero emissions in the road traffic sector by 2060, and it is true when moving to the results under the SSPs (see Supplementary Note 5 for details). However, the optimistic auto electric transformation will finally restructure the future of road transport structure and then determine the long-term trend of carbon emissions, especially in the passenger transport department. In addition, challenges in the low-carbon transition of freight transport39,40 also explains the difficulty in achieving carbon neutrality in road transport (see Supplementary Note 6). Therefore, the realization of carbon neutrality in the transport sector may further rely on the forced phase-out of fuel vehicles, disruptive innovation in the transport system, and the structural adjustment of freight transport from road to rail and water.


The low-carbon transformation of China’s road transport sector is key to achieving the country’s dual carbon goals. Based on China’s high-frequency passenger vehicle sales data and real-time vehicle monitoring big data, we find that the ownership of NEVs and CO2 emissions from road traffic showed a significant growth trend, with average annual growth rates of 57.3 and 20.5%, respectively. Among them, the eastern coastal region had the largest emissions, with road traffic emissions accounting for half of the region’s total emissions, but the central region had the largest annual growth rate of 22.2%. A direct and significant positive correlation between economic development and car ownership is also found, which implies that the high level of economic development generally determines the high ownership of vehicles and high emission level.

Under the influence of the economic development level, population density, transportation infrastructure construction, and other factors, road transport passenger CO2 emissions and NEV ownership show significant regional heterogeneity. We also observed a significant increase in emissions reduction from the electrification of vehicles. Even if all electricity consumed by electric vehicles came from coal, emissions reductions from electrification increased nearly fourfold between 2016 and 2019, and the increase could be tenfold, if the consumed power were from clean source. Therefore, cleanliness of the power supply is the key to reduce emissions of transportation electrification.

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Data availability

The datasets generated during the study are available in a Zenodo repository ( (ref. 60).

Code availability

The source code for the model developed in this study can be accessed on request. It uses the open-source Fleet Life Cycle Assessment and Material-Flow Estimation (FLAME) model, available in a Zenodo repository (


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This work was co-funded by the Hatch Graduate Scholarship for Sustainable Energy Research, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grant and the University of Toronto Dean’s Strategic Fund. Views expressed in this work are those of the authors alone. We thank P. Kyle at the Joint Global Change Research Institute for providing the GCAM results and helping us to process them.

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  1. Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, CanadaAlexandre Milovanoff, I. Daniel Posen & Heather L. MacLean


All authors conceived and planned the study. A.M. collected the data, developed the code and ran the simulations. All authors analysed data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Alexandre Milovanoff.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–33, Tables 1–9, methods, results and discussion.

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Milovanoff, A., Posen, I.D. & MacLean, H.L. Electrification of light-duty vehicle fleet alone will not meet mitigation targets. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 1102–1107 (2020).

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  • Received14 February 2020
  • Accepted03 September 2020
  • Published28 September 2020
  • Issue DateDecember 2020
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