A research team led by Penn State found that reducing the use of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change does not always result in better air quality. After examining nearly 30,000 simulated future scenarios, the team found that certain climate mitigation efforts could have detrimental health effects in specific geographic areas. Their study findings were published today (May 18) in Nature Sustainability.
Climate mitigation efforts
While previous modelling studies have consistently shown the health benefits of climate mitigation efforts, this study provided new insights by identifying potential collateral damage under certain scenarios.
The researchers looked at cases where reducing fossil fuel use required significant changes in land use to grow bioenergy resources such as seaweed, corn stalks, and barley straw for biofuel production. These land use changes, which could result in further deforestation in regions like Russia and Canada, were found to contribute to worsening air quality.
Consequently, affected areas may experience higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, which could lead to an increase in premature deaths.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of possible future scenarios, the researchers employed an exploratory ensemble approach that sampled multiple variables at different levels. This approach allowed the evaluation of a wide range of plausible futures, in contrast to traditional narrative-based scenarios.
Using the Global Change Analysis Model, an open-source integrated assessment model, the team simulated land and power system changes for 32 geopolitical regions. They also conducted health and air quality impact assessments in nearly 200 countries.
What is Climate mitigation?
Climate mitigation refers to actions and strategies undertaken to reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate or alleviate climate change. The goal of climate mitigation is to limit the extent of global warming and its associated impacts on the environment, ecosystems, and human societies.
Mitigation efforts encompass a wide range of actions, including transitioning to renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, adopting sustainable land use practices, promoting reforestation and afforestation, implementing carbon capture and storage technologies and adopting cleaner transport systems.
The objective is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants, which contribute to the increase in the greenhouse effect and global warming. By mitigating climate change, we can work towards a more sustainable and resilient future for both the planet and its people.
Carbon Price Study: Health Impacts Vary
A recent study using a coupled climate, energy and health model has shed light on the potential health impacts associated with a global carbon price. The research, which explored approximately 30,000 future scenarios, revealed that the distribution of these health effects across countries remains unclear.
The study found that the implementation of a carbon price can lead to consistent reductions in ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels and related mortality risks in countries currently burdened by air pollution.
However, for some countries with lower pollution levels, the introduction of a carbon price could increase mortality risks in certain scenarios.
These co-harms to health are mainly attributed to emissions increases resulting from bioenergy use and changes in land use, particularly the scale and method of deforestation.
The study emphasizes the need to improve representations of deep uncertainties, country-specific characteristics, and cross-sector interactions to gain a robust, quantitative understanding of these distributional results.
Uncertainties in Climate Mitigation
Lead author Xinyuan Huang, a doctoral student in Penn State’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, emphasized the importance of this research in highlighting uncertainties surrounding the future and potential unintended consequences of climate mitigation.
“What I find especially useful is that now we can start to think about the levers we have, and how we can use them to mitigate harmful impacts and to embrace the benefits,” she said. “If we go for the bioenergy-heavy future, then we really need to pay attention to how we manage land.”
“If we want to learn more about energy system changes and the resulting distribution of health impacts, we need more analysis at the finer resolution,” Huang said. “For example, we are now working on a new scenario ensemble at the state and county level for the United States, so that it could be more informative for policymakers.”
The study provides an opportunity to consider different levers to mitigate harmful impacts, such as adopting alternative approaches to deforestation that minimize the impact on air quality, such as slash rather than burn.
The researchers plan to further investigate the impacts at finer geographic resolutions, with the goal of evaluating changes in power system and health distributions at the state and county levels in the United States. This more detailed analysis could provide valuable information for policymakers.
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