Added Benefits: Cleaning up our Energy

We use energy everyday to charge our phones, drive to work, and cook dinner. Much of that energy also releases pollution into the air, which can harm our health and the climate. The health impacts include increases in asthma attacks and heart attacks from people living in polluted areas. Climate change also affects humans as it can lead to people’s homes being flooded from both sea level rise and storms. There are many policy proposals designed to reduce pollution to better care for our health and the environment. These can include making polluters pay for their emissions or putting limits on how much pollution can be released. 

Where does the science come in?

Researchers are also working to figure out how to maximize the benefit to both health and climate. The type of pollution that causes climate change is different from the type of pollution that makes people sick. There are some steps we can take that will reduce both types of pollution, such as switching from generating electricity using fossil fuels to using solar panels and wind turbines. Other changes, such as shifting from coal fired power plants to natural gas fired power plants, will improve health outcomes but not necessarily climate outcomes. All of these changes also have a cost, and we need to ensure that people can still afford vital services such as heating their homes in winter.

To balance these concerns, a group of researchers from the University of Colorado used computers to model three different policies. One policy focused only on reducing the health impacts from energy use, one focused only on the climate effects, and one considered both. First they modeled the energy system to see what changes each policy would affect. They then used a model of the atmosphere to see how air quality would change for each policy. This model works a little bit like a weather forecasting model but is more complex since it also tracks how wind and rain and chemistry move and change pollution. Finally, they used a model that evaluates health outcomes based on air quality.


This figure represents the three models used by the researchers to analyze the policy: energy, atmosphere, and health . Image made by author using images from: Pixabay, and SVG

The researchers found that all three policy options would avoid some negative health effects. Even with the policy focused only on greenhouse gases some changes, such as improving efficiency and using more wind and solar, reduce all emissions. This leads to some health improvements. However, the policies that were designed to improve health had larger health improvements. All three policies were also able to reduce greenhouse gases, leading to a benefit for the climate. Again, the combined policy and the climate policy achieved larger reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but all three cases showed improvement. 


This map shows how air quality would improve with both policies enacted together. As the map gets more green, the concentration of PM2.5 has a larger improvement with the policy compared to a future without the policy. The reason that the improvements are larger in the east is that the pollution in that part of the country was worse without the policy, so there was more room for improvement. Figure made by author.

Researchers refer to the ‘accidental’ benefits as co-benefits. This means that in addition to the policy having the benefit it was designed to produce, there were additional benefits to society. This shows that there are several steps we can take to change the way people use energy that will make us healthier and reduce climate change.

What can I do?

There are even changes you can make yourself that will help reduce illnesses and climate change. Energy efficiency is one of the best ways to reduce all emissions, and there are many ways to achieve this. Some options: look for the Energy Star label when buying appliances, set your electronics and thermostat to a power saving setting if they have one, and drive the most fuel-efficient car when taking a trip. Following each of these tips will use less gas or electricity, which means that all types of pollution are reduced. For an even bigger difference, vote for leaders with platforms that include pro-environmental policies like the ones studied here.

Source: Brown, K.E., Henze, D.K. & Milford, J.B. Comparing health benefit calculations for alternative energy futures. Air Qual Atmos Health (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11869-020-00840-8

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Kristen Brown

Kristen Brown

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the EPA where I specialize in evaluating environmental impacts of our energy system. I have a PhD in Environmental Engineering from CU Boulder where I also received a master’s in Mechanical Engineering, and I have a BA in Physics from Cal Berkeley. Outside of work, I’m an amateur boxer and have two spoiled dogs. You can follow me on twitter at @Kris10BrownPhD and find out about my research at https://www.kristen-brownphd.com/

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