‘Groundbreaking’: How children in Hawaii won landmark climate case

A group of children and young activists has won a constitutional case forcing a government department to curb emissions from the transport sector in Hawaii.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green speaks at a news conference in Honolulu on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green speaks at a news conference in Honolulu in December 2023 [Audrey McAvoy/AP]

In an historic settlement of a climate change lawsuit brought by 13 children and young activists in 2022, the Hawaiian department of transport agreed on Thursday to decarbonise its transport sector with a goal of reaching zero emissions by 2045.

Hawaii was already aiming for carbon neutrality by 2045, which means balancing the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by capturing or offsetting it. But this settlement forces the department to go further by halting carbon emissions altogether.

The settlement has been hailed as groundbreaking. “[This] is the world’s first youth-led constitutional climate case addressing climate pollution from the transportation sector,” said Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organisation, after the settlement was announced.

Hearings for the case were due to begin on Monday next week, but will no longer go ahead.

What was the Hawaii climate lawsuit about?

A group of children and young people filed the lawsuit, Navahine v Hawaii Department of Transportation, in 2022 in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court.

The plaintiffs alleged that the US state of Hawaii had violated their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by implementing transportation policies and infrastructure which use fossil fuels and cause polluting emissions.

In the lawsuit, the claimants cited rights granted under the public trust doctrine and the constitution, guaranteed by the Hawaii Constitution in articles XI, section 1 and XI, section 9.

The public trust doctrine states that public natural resources are held in trust by the state for the benefit of the people.

Additionally, the claimants cited Hawaii’s constitutional pledge to “conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources” and pointed to the fact that Hawaii’s transport sector is projected to make up 60 percent of the state’s emissions by 2030.

The trial was scheduled to begin on Monday next week, but will now not proceed as Hawaii State Environmental Court Judge John Tonaki has formally accepted the settlement reached in court before the trial began.

Who filed the case?

The plaintiffs are all children and young people who were aged from nine to 18 when they filed the case in 2022.

One of the plaintiffs, 14-year-old Navahine F, is a Native Hawaiian raised in Kaneohe, located on the island of Oahu, about 20 miles (32km) from Honolulu.

The lawsuit said that heavy rains and droughts due to climate change are threatening her ability to continue her family’s tradition of farming the root vegetable taro.

“If urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are not made, these [family’s wetlands] will be underwater within Navahine’s lifetime,” the lawsuit stated regarding the danger that rising sea levels pose for Native farming practices.

The lawsuit also cited the case of another plaintiff, 15-year-old Kaʻōnohi, who said he dreams of pursuing marine biology or archaeology, but worries that these career options may not be available to him in the future due to climate change’s effect on the natural environment.

What has the Hawaii transport department agreed to?

  • Hawaii will lay out a “roadmap” plan for achieving zero emissions from its ground, sea and inner island air transportation systems by 2045. This goes further than its previously stated aim of becoming “carbon neutral” by 2045.
  • A Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan will be published within one year from the agreement which was settled on Thursday.
  • The provisions include the creation of a unit and responsible positions within the tourism department to coordinate greenhouse gas reduction and ensure that highway construction accounts for the needs of people of all ages and abilities.
  • Additionally, pedestrian, bicycle and transit networks are to be completed in five years, while a minimum of $40m will be dedicated to expanding the public electric vehicle charging network by 2030.

What have the parties to the case said about the settlement?

The office of Hawaii Governor Josh Green released a statement on Thursday in which he said: “This settlement informs how we as a state can best move forward to achieve life-sustaining goals.”

Referring to the settlement and addressing the claimants, Green said: “It’s groundbreaking, you’re the first in the country, I believe in a state, to succeed,” during a press conference.

The governor’s office statement explained that this is the first constitutional climate case led by young people seeking to address climate pollution from the transportation sector.

It added that the settlement is also the first in which state government entities have decided to work with youth plaintiffs to address concerns regarding constitutional issues arising from climate change, committing to and implementing specific plans.

The statement also quoted Navahine who said: “We got what we came for, and we got it faster than we expected.”

Where else have children and young people filed climate change cases?

In recent years, young people all over the world have been pursuing legal cases to pave the way for stronger climate policies. These cases include:

  • Germany, 2020: Nine people aged 15 to 32 challenged Germany’s Federal Climate Protection Act in the Federal Constitutional Court, claiming the emission reduction targets provided in the law were insufficient. The court ruled in their favour and Germany brought forward its deadline for achieving carbon neutrality from 2050 to 2045.
  • Montana, US, 2020: Sixteen children and young people aged five to 22 sued the state of Montana for not protecting their right to a clean environment. In 2023, the court ruled in their favour and stated that Montana must take climate change into account when approving fossil fuel projects.
  • Europe, 2023: Six Portuguese children and young people aged 11 to 24 took 32 European nations to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that government inaction on climate change discriminates against the youth. However, the court dismissed the case due to its overly broad geographic scope.
  • South Korea, 2024: Two hundred people, including 62 children aged under five, have joined a petition heard by South Korea’s Constitutional Court that alleges that the government is failing to protect people in the country from the harms of climate change. The verdict is expected later this year.
Source: Al Jazeera