As SUVs have become more popular among the richest households, the “historic link” between low incomes and polluting cars has been broken and reversed, according to a new report by the climate charity Possible.
It argues that the social justice arguments against charging motorists according to how much they pollute have been “first nullified and then overturned”.
The rise of SUVs has strengthened the case for carbon emissions-based parking and road user charging that targets the heaviest emitters, says Possible.
“Pricing carbon into car access and parking fees will disproportionately impact the richest motorists,” the report states. “While new charges for private car use are far from being the only things required to meet climate goals - new large scale investment in public transport provision being a notable example not discussed in this paper - they will inevitably be required in some form.”
The report points out that average CO2 emissions per kilometre (gCO2/km) from new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles are no longer falling at the UK and London levels, and are rising in urban areas where large sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are most popular, such as Kensington & Chelsea.
With the growing popularity of larger, heavier, more powerful cars such as SUVs, a car that was bought new in 2013 is, on average, likely to have lower CO2 emissions than a new ICE car bought in 2023, says the report.
It estimates that the richest fifth of households in England are 81% more likely to own a super-heavy emitting car (226gCO2/km or above) than those in other income bands
“In Kensington & Chelsea, the large SUV capital of Britain, heavy and super-heavy CO2 emitting cars are far more prevalent in the highest income postcodes.”
Drivers of heavy emitting cars are likely to be people that have the means to buy an electric vehicle, says the report. “The retail price of each vehicle class is similar, while super-heavy emitting cars are the most expensive on the market, costing far more than a typical EV. In the midst of a rapidly worsening climate crisis, it should not be controversial to target higher charges at fossil-fuel-hungry vehicles that may be more than three times as damaging to the climate as the average new car, and which are disproportionately owned by those on the highest incomes.”
Imposing the highest parking and road user charges on the heaviest-emitting vehicles is likely to be highly effective in decarbonisation terms, and also highly equitable, according to Possible. “Despite falling costs, EVs are still relatively expensive to buy, often meaning they are not yet in reach for those on lower incomes. Higher charges for heavy emitting cars can both raise revenue for public transport and active travel improvements at the same time as incentivising those who can most afford to switch to EVs faster.”
Road user pricing is urgently needed to plug the “growing black hole in treasury revenues from falling fuel duty as EVs grow in popularity”, the charity argues.
“But we do not need to wait for road user pricing to act; local authorities too have levers to pull, through the fee structures they apply to both short stay parking and to residents’ parking permits.”
Possible advises councils with a high share of private vehicles parked on-street, such as Kensington & Chelsea, to introduce a “heavy-carbon parking surcharge” for the heaviest CO2 emitting cars. “This could follow the familiar structure used for income tax bands, with emissions above certain thresholds - 160gCO2/km for heavy- and 220gCO2/km for super-heavy-emitting cars - charged at escalating rates.”
The report notes that Camden Council is “consulting on introducing just such a sliding scale for residents’ and businesses’ parking permits”.
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