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Children win landmark Hawaii climate case

A group of young activists and children has won a constitutional case that will force a government department to curb transportation emissions in Hawaii.
Olivia Peluso
road in Oahu, Hawaii
Photo by Peter Thomas on Unsplash

In a historic settlement of a lawsuit brought by 13 children and activists in 2022, the Hawaiian Department of Transportation on Thursday agreed to decarbonise its transport sector to reach zero emissions by 2045.

The lawsuit, Navahine v Hawaii Department of Transportation, was filed in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court. The plaintiffs alleged that Hawaii had violated their constitutional right to a healthful and clean environment by implementing transportation infrastructure and policies reliant on fossil fuels, causing polluting emissions. 

The plaintiffs, most of whom are Indigenous, are all children and young activists who were aged nine to 18 when the case was filed in 2022. One of the plaintiffs, 14-year-old Navahine F., is a Native Hawaiian raised in Kaneohe on the island of Oahu. She said the heavy rains and droughts spurred by climate change threaten her ability to continue her family’s taro farming tradition. 

The claimants cited rights under the public trust doctrine, which states that the state holds public natural resources in trust to benefit the people. They also cited Hawaii’s constitutional pledge to “conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources,” pointing to the fact that the state’s transportation sector is projected to comprise 60% of the state’s emissions by 2030.

“[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.

Children at "sharp edge" of climate change, says WEF

Children are at “climate change’s sharp edge,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) said Friday. Some 88% of the burden of climate change-related disease fell on children under five, according to the World Health Organization

Discussing the role of youth activists, WEF says, “their voices serve as a call to action for steps to tackle the climate crisis and safeguard their well-being. It is essential to amplify their message and provide support for youth-led initiatives that highlight the connection between climate change and children's welfare.”

In recent years, young people worldwide have been pursuing legal action for stronger climate policies.

In 2020, nine people aged 15 to 32 challenged Germany’s Federal Climate Protection Act in the Federal Constitutional Court, claiming the emissions reduction targets were insufficient. The court ruled in their favor, and Germany moved its carbon neutrality goal up five years to 2045. In 2023, six Portuguese children and young people aged 11 to 24 took 32 European nations to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that government inaction on climate change discriminates against the youth. The case was dismissed due to its overly broad geographic scope.

This year, 200 people, including 62 children under the age of five, have joined a petition heard by South Korea’s Constitutional Court alleging that the government is failing to protect people from the harms of climate change. The verdict is expected later this year. 

Hawaii's new plan

Hawaii has agreed to create a “roadmap” plan for achieving zero emissions from its ground, sea, and inner island transportation systems by 2045. Additionally, a greenhouse gas reduction plan will be published within a year from Thursday’s settlement. 

Provisions include the creation of a unit and positions within the tourism department to coordinate greenhouse gas reductions. A pedestrian, bicycle, and transit network is to be completed in five years, while a minimum of $40 million will be dedicated to expanding the electric vehicle charging network by 2030.

Hawaii is often considered a climate leader among U.S. states. Hawaii aimed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, which means balancing the carbon emitted into the atmostphere by capture or offsets. And Hawaii’s 2050 sustainability plan calls to make all state vehicles carbon-free by 2035.

However, Hawaii has moved in the wrong direction. Between 2020 and 2021, carbon emissions in the state increased by more than 16%. The plaintiffs said Hawaii’s DoT missed every interim benchmark to reduce its emissions since 2008. And, per capita, Hawaii emits more carbon than 85% of countries on Earth, attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.