BOSTON >> The state's highest court on Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling and sided with environmental groups that sued Massachusetts for failing to adopt strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Lawyers for the Conservation Law Foundation, the Massachusetts Energy Consumer Alliance and four Boston and Wellesley teenagers had asked the courts to rule that the state hasn't lived up to its 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. When it passed, the law was the most aggressive of its kind in the country, advocates said.
The groups said the law requires the Department of Environmental Protection to set strict greenhouse gas emissions limits to help the state meet its goal of reducing those emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
Lawyers for the state had argued that the law's requirements have been met and that the law only calls on the DEP to set "a desired level of declining" emission limits.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday ruled that the state hadn't met the law's requirements.
Jenny Rushlow, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, hailed the decision, saying it was a historic day in the battle to protect the environment.
"Today our highest court declared clearly and unequivocally that our leaders can no longer sit on their hands while Massachusetts communities are put at risk from the effects of climate change," Rushlow said.
Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the administration is reviewing the ruling and "remains committed to meeting the Global Warming Solutions Act goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as well as achieving greater reductions for 2030 and beyond."
The law requires the department to come up with regulations "establishing a desired level of declining annual aggregate emission limits for sources or categories of sources that emit greenhouse gas emissions."
The regulations were supposed to be issued by Jan. 1, 2012, to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.
The department pointed to other steps it has taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including a regional cap and trade market to manage carbon dioxide emissions — known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — and a low emission vehicle program to reduce automobile emissions.
Environmental activists sued in 2014 to try to force the state to set the greenhouse gas emissions limits. A Suffolk County Superior Court judge last year ruled in favor of the state and dismissed the lawsuit.
Supreme Court Justice Robert Cordy, however, said the language of the law was "unambiguous."
"Although the department's cited regulatory initiatives are important to the Commonwealth's overall scheme of reducing greenhouse gas emissions over time, they do not fulfill the specific requirements (of the law)," Cordy said, writing for the high court.
"We reject the department's interpretation of the provision, which would tend to undermine the act's central purpose of reducing emissions in the Commonwealth," Cordy added.
The ruling comes as lawmakers and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker are wrestling with a host of renewable energy issues, from paving the way for Canadian hydropower to debating the future of solar power credits.