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A systems approach to evaluating the air quality co-benefits of US carbon policies


Because human activities emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) and conventional air pollutants from common sources, policy designed to reduce GHGs can have co-benefits for air quality that may offset some or all of the near-term costs of GHG mitigation. We present a systems approach to quantify air quality co-benefits of US policies to reduce GHG (carbon) emissions. We assess health-related benefits from reduced ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5) by linking three advanced models, representing the full pathway from policy to pollutant damages. We also examine the sensitivity of co-benefits to key policy-relevant sources of uncertainty and variability. We find that monetized human health benefits associated with air quality improvements can offset 26–1,050% of the cost of US carbon policies. More flexible policies that minimize costs, such as cap-and-trade standards, have larger net co-benefits than policies that target specific sectors (electricity and transportation). Although air quality co-benefits can be comparable to policy costs for present-day air quality and near-term US carbon policies, potential co-benefits rapidly diminish as carbon policies become more stringent.

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Figure 1: Spatial maps show the difference in pollution concentration between each base case policy option and BAU.
Figure 2: Percentage of policy costs covered by the median value of policy benefits versus percentage CO2 reduction relative to 2006.
Figure 3: Human health co-benefits versus policy costs (billion 2006 US$, undiscounted).

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The authors acknowledge support from: the US EPA under the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program (#R834279); MIT’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and its consortium of industrial and foundation sponsors (see:; US Department of Energy Office of Science grant DE-FG02-94ER61937; the MIT Energy Initiative Total Energy Fellowship (R.K.S.); and a MIT Martin Family Society Fellowship (R.K.S.). Although the research described has been funded in part by the US EPA, it has not been subjected to any EPA review and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency, and no official endorsement should be inferred. We thank North East States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) for assistance in selection of policy scenarios, and Mort Webster (Penn State) and Ronald Prinn (MIT) for helpful comments and discussions.

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Authors and Affiliations



T.M.T., S.R. and N.E.S. designed the modelling framework and the research approach. T.M.T. linked the framework and conducted the atmospheric modelling and human health analysis. S.R. developed the economic modelling tool and conducted the economic model runs. R.K.S. assisted with the human health analysis. All authors contributed to writing the text.

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Correspondence to Tammy M. Thompson or Sebastian Rausch.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Thompson, T., Rausch, S., Saari, R. et al. A systems approach to evaluating the air quality co-benefits of US carbon policies. Nature Clim Change 4, 917–923 (2014).

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