Hawaii officials have announced a “groundbreaking” legal settlement with a group of young climate activists, which they said will force the state’s department of transportation to move more aggressively towards a zero-emission transportation system.

“You have a constitutional right to fight for life-sustaining climate policy and you have mobilised our people in this case,” Josh Green, the Hawaii governor, told the 13 young plantiffs in the case, saying he hoped the settlement would inspire similar action across the country.

Under what legal experts called a “historic” settlement, announced on Thursday, Hawaii officials will release a roadmap “to fully decarbonize the state’s transportation systems, taking all actions necessary to achieve zero emissions no later than 2045 for ground transportation, sea and inter-island air transportation”, Andrea Rodgers, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, said at a press conference with the governor.

“This is an extraordinary, unprecedented victory for the youth plaintiffs,” Michael Gerrard, the faculty director of the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told the Guardian.

While Hawaii has long embraced a progressive climate change agenda, with 2045 as a target year for decarbonisation, the new settlement is “as big a deal as everyone said it is”, said Denise Antolini, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Hawaii Law School, who has followed climate change litigation for decades.

“It’s written down, it’s enforceable, and that makes all in the difference in the world between a promise and actual implementation,” Antolini said.

The June 2022 lawsuit, Navahine F v Hawaii Department of Transportation, was filed by 13 young people who claimed the state’s pro-fossil fuel transportation policies violate their state constitutional rights. By prioritising projects like highway expansion instead of efforts to electrify transit and promote walking and biking, the complaint says, the state created “untenable levels of greenhouse gas emissions”.

As a result, state officials harmed the plaintiffs’ ability to “live healthful lives in Hawaii now and into the future”, and violated the right to a clean and healthful environment guaranteed by the state’s constitution, the litigation argued.

It named the Hawaii Department of Transportation and its director, as well as the state of Hawaii and its former governor David Ige, as defendants.

The plaintiffs, most of whom are Indigenous, alleged that by contributing to the climate crisis, the state hastened the “decline and disappearance of Hawaii’s natural and cultural heritage”. When the case was filed, the plantiffs were between the ages of nine and 18.

Several of the plantiffs, many of whom are being identified only by their first names, spoke at the press conference.

“A great thing to talk about is the kind of hope this brings to us. For many of us, it’s kind of been our whole life we’re seeing our beaches falling into the water, and our coral reefs disappearing,” said Lucina, one 17-year-old plaintiff.

Navahine, whose name is on the lawsuit, is a 16-year-old Native Hawaiian whose family has been farming the land “for 10 generations”.

Drought, flooding and sea level rise were all having immediate effects on her family’s crops, she said. “Seeing the effects, how we were struggling to make any money for our farm, kind of pushed me to this case,” she said.

Officials said the legal settlement brings together activists with all three branches of the state’s government to focus on meeting climate change goals, including mobilising the judicial branch. The court will oversee the settlement agreement through 2045 or until the state reaches its zero emission goals, Rodgers said.

“We have extremely tough goals to hit by 2045 and this is going to make sure we move forward much faster,” Ed Sniffen, the head of the state’s transportation department said at a press conference.

State officials often claim Hawaii is a climate leader. In 2015, it became the first US state to require its electric utilities to zero out its power sector emissions by 2045 – a tall order in a state that has historically obtained most of its energy from oil and coal.

The state legislature has also passed a goal of decarbonising the transportation sector. And Hawaii’s 2050 sustainability plan calls to make all state vehicles carbon free by 2035.

But the state has moved in the wrong direction. Between 2020 and 2021, carbon emissions in Hawaii increased by more than 16 percent. The plaintiffs say Hawaii’s department of transportation has missed every interim benchmark to reduce its planet-warming emissions since 2008. And per capita, Hawaii emits more carbon than 85 percent of countries on Earth, attorneys wrote in the 2022 lawsuit.

The suit came as part of a series of youth-led constitutional climate cases brought by the non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust. Earlier this year, the firm notched a major win when Montana’s supreme court upheld a groundbreaking decision requiring state regulations to consider the climate crisis before approving permits for fossil fuel development.

Environmental law experts said that the youth climate lawsuit strategy, which has been ongoing since 2011, has faced an uphill battle in many states.

“Until last year’s trial in Montana and today’s settlement in Hawaii, none of them had succeeded,” Gerrard said, noting that both Hawaii and Montana “have a right to a clean environment written into their constitution”.

But Hawaii’s environmental court judges took the case seriously, fast-tracking it towards a trial, which helped provide pressure for the state to settle, Antolini said. The leadership of Green, who became Hawaii’s governor in December 2022, was also important.

“In none of the prior cases was the defendant state government willing to budge an inch; but here the governor embraced the plaintiffs’ claims and agreed to a wide-ranging court order,” Gerrard said.

The Hawaii settlement is significant because it is one of the first major cases “laser-focused on transportation”, is responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions, but which “tends to get ignored”, Antolini said.

The cooperative nature of the legal agreement, which promises to include young people in advisory roles, and brings together government officials, lawyers, policy makers and teenagers, is also noteworthy, Antolini said, and appropriate for “an island community like Hawaii” where people know “we’re in the boat together”.

Our Children’s Trust also has pending litigation in Alaska, Florida, Utah and Virginia. A federal lawsuit it filed in December against the US Environmental Protection Agency is also pending.

Last month, a federal appeals court granted the Biden administration’s request to strike down another federal lawsuit filed by Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v United States.