The big winner in the recent election was the environment. It featured as a more prominent issue than any election in recent times. The main concerns were the bad state of our rivers, flatlining of the Department of Conservation's core budget, and climate change.

Jacinda Ardern described climate change as "my generation's nuclear free moment".

That's a powerful analogy and carries with it a call to arms that has resonance.

It implies reducing emissions and transitioning to a low carbon economy - but by when? It implies that New Zealand needs to do more - but what?


This is where things get complicated. There are a number of groups, academics, think-tanks and business organisations all offering their solutions.

Many are on the right track. Some are unrealistic. Others may be premature, or too late: timing is important if we want to minimise the costs of transition.

There are two kinds of domestic policies on emission reductions: a carbon charge, and other measures.

Pricing carbon incentivises emissions' reduction, but there's disagreement about how to do that and what the price should be. Labour and National favour the emissions trading scheme, NZ First and the Greens a direct carbon charge.

There's disagreement on whether agriculture - 50 per cent of our emissions - should be subject to a price (while meantime the sector gets a big taxpayer subsidy).

Other measures are fast evolving. The motor vehicle fleet is slowly transitioning to electric and with nearly 90 per cent of our electricity coming from renewables, New Zealand is well-placed for take-up.

Researchers are looking at how to reduce methane production from livestock. EECA is promoting innovative energy efficiency initiatives. Foresters are starting to farm carbon again. All positive stuff.

But there's bad stuff as well. NZ Rail inexplicably abandoned electrification of the main trunk line in favour of new diesel trains.

Massive investments are going into new motorways. There are subsidies for oil exploration and government support for new coal mines. All producing more emissions.

Overall New Zealand's climate policies are ad hoc and lack coherence. There's no overall plan, no consistency of approach.

We have our Paris commitments to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, and longer term we (and the rest of the world) need to transition to net zero emissions by around mid-century to limit dangerous global warming (net zero meaning emissions less carbon sinks including from forestry).

The problem is that climate change is an unusually long-lived policy challenge - one that will take decades to address - and our politics work on short-term three-year cycles. Relying on business as usual just won't cut the mustard.

But the election results have provided an opportunity to make real progress. On preliminary seats in the new Parliament, there's a clear majority in favour of creating a Climate Commission.

An independent Climate Commission, modelled on the successful UK version, would have its own act of Parliament setting out its role and responsibilities. Generation Zero has had a good attempt at scoping such legislation.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has recommended such an entity.

The Productivity Commission asked "Does New Zealand need an independent body to oversee domestic and international climate change commitments?"

The Climate Commission would have an independent board and access to the best expertise we can muster. It would be an agency of Parliament, like the Commissioner for the Environment or the Audit Office.

It would prepare a low carbon plan, setting out the transition pathway to net zero. It would report to Parliament in an open, transparent fashion on clear milestones.

It would not have decision-making powers: those decisions must remain the prerogative of Ministers. But it would recommend - and Ministers would be obliged to explain any departure from those recommendations.

NZ First, Labour and the Greens have all explicitly endorsed this approach. National has equivocated although Minister Nick Smith acknowledged the idea had merit at a recent conference.

NZ First fleshed out its commitments in some detail:
• Establish a new Parliamentary Commission for Climate Change (PCCC) as an Office of Parliament.

• Make the PCCC legally responsible for reporting against both the Kyoto and Paris Agreements setting three-yearly "Carbon Budget" designed to reach these commitments (first budget to become operative in 2021).

• Provide for the PCCC to provide independent advice to central and local government on meeting the Carbon Budget and preparing for climate change.

So NZ First is well-placed to make the Climate Commission happen, especially if it forms a government with Labour and the Greens. But even if it enters into a coalition arrangement with National, or sits on the cross-benches, it could still retain its freedom to support the required legislation. And National might come round.

At a climate conference next week we have Rt Hon John Gummer (Lord Deben), chairman of the UK Climate Committee and Dr Jan Wright, both elaborating on how a Climate Commission could add direction and coherence to our efforts to address climate change.

The establishment of a Climate Commission is the single most important step forward we can take to address the global warming challenge.

• Gary Taylor is chief executive of the Environmental Defence Society and convener of the Australia-New Zealand Climate Change and Business Conference to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday.