Climate mitigation efforts may have harmful health effects in certain areas, study suggests.

Reduce fuel use and improve air quality, right? It may not be as clear as it seems, according to a Penn State-led research team. They examined nearly 30,000 simulated futures and found that some climate mitigation efforts could cause harmful health effects in specific geographic areas.

Their results were published today (May 18). Natural sustainability.

In general, reducing fossil fuel use is good for climate change and good for cleaning the air, and modeling studies have consistently found health benefits from climate reduction.“Corresponding author Wei Peng, an assistant professor of international affairs and civil and environmental engineering at Penn State, has conducted research in this area for a decade.But in this study, for the first time, we were able to look at potential joint injuries in a subset of situations..”

The researchers found some scenarios where fossil fuel reduction would require significant land-use change, which is used to create biofuels, including algae and forms of ethanol and biodiesel such as corn stalks and barley straw. Under these conditions, in some areas such as Russia and Canada, deforestation can occur on a large scale, leading to worsening air quality. As a result, people with poor air quality in these areas may suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, the researchers said.

The researchers obtained these results using an exploratory set approach which samples several variables at different levels -; For example, carbon emissions at different levels -; To gain an understanding of the scope of possible future scenarios.

Rather than using narrative scenarios, they tend to ask questions such as, ‘What if there is a world with extreme inequality?‘ or ‘What if we had a low carbon development world?’ First author Xinyuan Huang, a doctoral student in Penn State’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, developed a large set of scenarios.This approach combines climate, energy and health models to explore many plausible futures.”

In this review, the researchers analyzed energy and land system changes for 32 geopolitical regions based on the Global Change Analysis Model, an open-source integrated assessment model. They then conducted air quality and health impact assessments for nearly 200 countries.

Peng said that because the future is so uncertain, it is not known whether there will be conditions involving health problems in the future, but their findings show the unintended consequences of climate change.

What I found particularly helpful was that we began to think about our current levers, and how we can use them to offset negative influences and embrace the benefits. For the future of bioenergy – if it’s serious, we really need to pay attention to how we manage the land.

Xinyuan Huang, first author

According to Peng, tools to reduce harmful impacts can include different approaches to any significant deforestation. For example, clear-cutting instead of burning still allows for irreversible deforestation but reduces the impact on air quality.

For next steps, the researchers plan to assess the effects from a more geographical perspective.

“If we want to learn more about energy system changes and the distribution of health effects, we need more analysis at a finer scale,” he said. “For example, we are now developing a new set of scenarios for the United States at the state and county level to be more informative for policymakers.”

Other authors on the paper are Vivek Srikrishnan of the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, Jonathan Lamontagne of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, and Klaus Keller of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College.

The National Science Foundation, the Penn State Institute of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Science, and Dartmouth College provided funding for this research.


Journal Reference:

Huang, X., inter alia. (2023) Impacts of global climate mitigation on regional air quality and health. Natural sustainability.

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