The idea of a carbon tax will have to be revisited if Prime Minister Helen Clarke's vision of a carbon-neutral country is to become a reality, according to Toyota New Zealand's executive chairman Bob Field.
He said that with all political parties now supporting sustainability, the carbon tax should be put back on the agenda. "Corrective and collective action is long overdue if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions." Field was speaking at the launch of the hybrid Lexus RX400h, the luxury petrol-electric all-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle, priced at $99,050.
He said most New Zealanders recognised and supported the need to take action on climate change.
"The time could therefore be right for imposing a carbon tax at the same time as reducing company and personal income tax so the whole exercise would be fiscally neutral."
Field and other executives in the automotive industry are pushing for a carbon tax at fuel pumps in an effort to coax buyers into more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The trade-off for the higher pump price would be a tax rebate - motorists would get back from the taxman much of what they paid in carbon tax at the pumps.
Field believes the higher pump price would change driving habits and buying decisions.
"Drivers of gas-guzzlers should be encouraged to think of alternative choices or be prepared to pay more for the environmental damage that they are causing." he said.
A carbon tax that delivered the higher European level of fuel prices, combined with a seven-year age restriction on used imports, would promote a reduction of carbon emissions from transport without the bureaucracy and compliance costs of other measures, he said.
"In Europe, they have always had high fuel prices due to taxes and duties. They may not be called carbon taxes but they have the same effect, and fuel prices are roughly double those in the United States."
Field said the expected trebling of the world's vehicle fleet by the year 2050 - most from Third World countries - would cause transport-related greenhouse gas emissions to more than double, and hasten climate change unless urgent measures were taken.
Hybrid cars, such as the Lexus RX400h, the Toyota Prius, and Honda Civic, reduce carbon emissions in the form of exhaust gases by more than half.
"Hydrogen fuel-cell technology can reduce it even further - as long as the hydrogen was produced from a low or no-carbon source of electricity," Field said.
"Toyota's view is that hybrid technology is an essential gateway that everyone will pass through to reach the carbon-free solution."
But he said that hydrogen-powered vehicles were at least 10 or 20 years away from being an affordable option for the average motorist. "In the meantime, we cannot afford to postpone taking decisive action to mitigate the impact of fossil fuel emissions, and this includes an accelerated take-up of hybrid vehicles like the RX400h."
The new model - subtly different in design to the petrol-only RX350 on which it is based - is powered by a 3.3-litre V6 petrol engine and two electric motors: a high-torque electric motor/generator and a rear electric motor/generator.
The hybrid system uses a 288-volt DC nickel-hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack under the rear seat.
A computer control unit combines with a split-power device to constantly adjust the power provided by both electric motors and the petrol engine.
It allows the vehicle to operate in different modes: electric-only mainly around town, petrol-only on the highway, or a combination of both when necessary.
The V6 delivers 155kW at 5600rpm and 288Nm of torque at 4400rpm. The front electric motor delivers 123kW of power at 4500rpm and 333Nm of torque from 0 to 1500rpm, while the rear-axle electric motor has 50kW of power from 4610 to 5120rpm and 130Nm of torque from 0 to 610rpm.
Energy-saving features include regenerative braking and a new electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system that operates only when the vehicle requires four-wheel traction and when accelerating from rest.
Like all other Lexus vehicles, the RX400h comes with a four-year/140,000km warranty, including four new tyres. The hybrid battery is covered for eight years or 160,000km.