Hawaii Settles Landmark Climate Case, Targets Zero Emissions by 2045

Top Hawaii officials announced a landmark legal settlement with a group of young climate activists. It will force the state Department of Transportation to quicken its move towards a no-emission transportation system. “You have a constitutional right to fight for life-sustaining climate policy, and you have mobilized our people in this case,” said Hawaii Gov. Josh Green to the 13 young plaintiffs. He expressed hope that this settlement would boost actions across the country.

Decarbonization Roadmap

Under the landmark accord announced, Hawaii regulators will issue a roadmap detailing how to completely decarbonize the state’s transportation systems. Andrea Rodgers, an attorney for the plaintiffs, explained the plan will include ground transportation, sea, and inter-island air transportation with the end goal of zero emissions no later than 2045. Michael Gerrard, faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said Monday’s settlement provided a “historic extraordinary, unprecedented victory for the youth plaintiffs.”

Legal Background/Context

A lawsuit was filed in June 2022 by 13 young people, Navahine F. v. Hawaii Department of Transportation. It argued that highway expansion is in direct competition with the electrification of transit and the creation of safe spaces to walk and bike.  At the time, the plaintiffs, between nine and 18 years old, alleged that the prioritization of highway expansion over efforts to electrify transit and promote walking and biking has caused “untenable levels of greenhouse gas emissions,” which will harm their ability to live healthful lives in Hawaii.

The vast majority of plaintiffs in the suit were Indigenous and had witnessed the devastations that climate change causes. Lucina, 17, described beaches and coral reefs that had vanished. Another plaintiff from Native Hawaiian, aged 16, Navahine, suggested that drought, flooding, and sea-level rise impacted her family’s farm. Their stories brought to light the human and cultural costs of climate change at stake.

Implementation and Oversight

This settlement emphasizes a collaboration between activists and every department in Hawaii’s government. It places the judicial branch at the helm to enforce the pact through to 2045 or beyond, if the state has not achieved its set targets for zero emissions. Ed Sniffen, head of the state’s Department of Transportation, acknowledges the ambitious targets for 2045 and the need for acceleration in the pace of progress.

For years, Hawaii has been leading in progressive climate policies. In 2015, it became the first US state to mandate zero emissions from its power sector by 2045. It has also set various goals for the decarbonization of its transportation sector—such as requiring all state vehicles to go carbon-free by 2035. Recently, however, there have been disturbing trends. Carbon emissions in Hawaii have risen more than 16 percent between 2020 and 2021, and the Department of Transportation has failed to meet all its interim benchmarks toward reducing such emissions since 2008.

Challenges and Future Actions

The young activists’ lawsuit is part of a broader series of youth-led constitutional climate cases spearheaded by the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust. This approach has been met with big roadblocks in many states to date. However, recent successes in Montana, and now Hawaii, show teeth to the growing recognition of how bad climate change is and how it has to be addressed in the courts.

Denise Antolini, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Hawaii Law School— ruled out the possibility that this was just a promise. “The most unique aspect of this commitment is how it will be legally enforced.” She also said what’s giving this agreement its cooperative flavor is the participation in decision-making positions by young people and bringing stakeholders together—very fitting for an island-style, close-knit community living in Hawaii.

Other states, such as Alaska, Florida, Utah, and Virginia, are still in the running due to pending litigation. Additionally, another major challenge was that of a federal lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency. The most recent settlement in Hawaii significantly makes rather a compelling precedent since it proves how youth-led litigation could be an incredibly effective agent for environmental change.