According to this morning's Dominion-Post, the government is investigating targetting gas-guzzlers and SUVs with higher registration costs to push the public towards more fuel efficient vehicles. Needless to say, I think this is a great idea. Transport contributes 17.8% of our overall greenhouse gas emissions (2003), and is a growth area. Halting that growth and reversing it will be a major achievement towards meeting our Kyoto obligations. Doing it by targeting vehicle efficiency means it is less likely to damage the economy, and will result in a sustained reduction rather than simply a temporary behaviour change reversed with the next change of government. It will also have long-term payoffs for our persistent balance-of-payments problem. Looking at some rough efficiency audit results, comprehensive improvements in the New Zealand vehicle fleet could eventually result in reductions of 20 - 30% in petrol usage (and hence transport emissions) over "business as usual". Oil is one of our major imports, and so this will contribute significantly towards balancing our national books.
(BTW, does anyone have any data on our average vehicle fleet efficiency? It would be useful to know - and to see what can realistically be done in this area)
While everyone agrees with the desirability of increasing efficiency, there's still some disagreement over the exact nature of any policy and incentives. The Motor Industry Association (representing vehicle importers) opposes any move which might target imports, and instead prefers incentives based on vehicle age (thus encouraging people to buy newer vehicles). This of course misses the real target - efficiency - and penalises those with older, but efficient vehicles. The Business Council for Sustainable Development wants cash-in-hand incentives, while the government wants penalties and differential taxes. Taxes vs incentives makes no real difference to the effectiveness of the policy; instead its a question of who pays and how the burden is distributed. I think the government has the right approach here; we shouldn't be rewarding polluters for stopping, but rather ensuring that they pay the full social cost of their activities. And that way we can also use the resulting revenue to fund other programs or reduce taxes in other areas - the "double dividend".
There's no details on when any policy will be implemented, but I hope it's soon. A solid policy here will result in substantial reductions in our transport emissions, and help to set us on a far more sustainable path. Combined with the biofuels initiative, it will make a real difference towards meeting our Kyoto target. And the sooner we start, the better.