Coordinating climate and air quality policies to improve public health | News from MIT

As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to cut its greenhouse gas emissions roughly 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it moves the United States closer to close to meeting its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to produce significant—and more immediate—improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA would sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulate matter known to worsen respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature death, along with other air pollutants. which worsen human health. A recent study shows that eliminating fossil fuel air pollution in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health care costs each year.

While national climate policies like those proposed by the IRA can both help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results can vary widely when it comes to improving public health. This is because the potential health benefits associated with improving air quality are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. However, these benefits can be maximized through a judicious mix of climate and air quality policies.

Several previous studies have assessed the likely health impacts of different policy combinations, but their utility is limited by reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More flexible tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air quality policy combinations and assess their collective impacts on air quality and human health. Now, researchers from MIT’s Joint Program on Global Change Science and Policy and MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

In a study published in Geoscientific model development, the MIT team presents its Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS) tool, which can be used to assess the likely air quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air quality policies at regional, sectoral, and fuel level.

“This tool can help integrate the isolated issues of air pollution sustainability and climate action,” said lead study author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Fellow and Research Fellow in the Technology Program and Policy (TPP) of the IDSS Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future and vice versa – but the problems have common sources that suggest shared solutions if done right.”

The initial application of TAPS in the study shows that with only current air quality policies and short-term climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, short-term reductions in pollution are giving way to long-term increases — given the expected increase in emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air quality policies could complement each other, each significantly reducing different pollutants to yield huge short- and long-term global health benefits.

“The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvement,” said MIT Joint Program Associate Director C. Adam Schlosser, co-author of the study. “It’s a win-win for setting climate goals that are also health goals.”

TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions from human activities (eg, fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of human emissions-generating activities between now and 2100 produced by MIT’s Economic Forecasting and Policy Analysis Model; and emission intensity scenarios (emissions per unit of activity) based on recent data from the model of interactions and synergies of greenhouse gases and air pollution.

“We see the climate crisis as a health crisis and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, especially for vulnerable communities,” said Johanna Jobin, Global Head of Corporate Reputation and Responsibility at Biogen . “The scientific community speaks with unanimity and alarm that not all climate action has equal health benefits. We are proud of our collaboration with the MIT Collaborative Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

The tool can inform decision-makers on a wide range of climate and air quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors or fuels to explore policy combinations at a more granular level or to target short-term actions with large benefits.

TAPS can be further developed to account for additional emission sources and trends.

“Our new instrument can be used to study a large set of scenarios for both climate and air quality. As the framework expands, we can add details about specific regions as well as additional pollutants, such as airborne toxics,” said study co-author Noel Selin, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, and director of the TPP.

This research was supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency and its Science for Results (STAR) program; Biogen; The TPP Lead Technology and Policy Initiative; and the TPP Policy Engagement Initiative.

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