Article | Published:

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

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 917923 (2014) | Download Citation


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    , & A meta-analysis of time-series studies of ozone and mortality with comparison to the national morbidity, mortality, and air pollution study. Epidemiology 16, 436–445 (2005).

  2. 2.

    , & Fine-particulate air pollution and life expectancy in the United States. N. Engl. J. Med. 360, 376–386 (2009).

  3. 3.

    US EPA Area Designations for 2008 Ground-Level Ozone Standards (Office of Air and Radiation, 2012);

  4. 4.

    US EPA Fine Particle (PM2.5) Designations (Office of Air and Radiation, 2012).

  5. 5.

    Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  6. 6.

    Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  7. 7.

    , & Implications of incorporating air-quality co-benefits into climate change policymaking. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 014007 (2010).

  8. 8.

    Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order No. 12866 (United States Government, 2013);

  9. 9.

    , & Developing a social cost of carbon for US regulatory analysis: A methodology and interpretation. Rev. Environ. Econ. Policy 7, 23–46 (2013).

  10. 10.

    et al. in Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change: A Guide for Policymakers (EPub) (ed Ruud de Mooij, I. et al.) Ch. 4 (International Monetary Fund, 2012).

  11. 11.

    & Health co-benefits of climate mitigation in urban areas. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 2, 172–177 (2010).

  12. 12.

    et al. Simultaneously mitigating near-term climate change and improving human health and food security. Science 335, 183–189 (2012).

  13. 13.

    et al. Climate, health, agricultural and economic impacts of tighter vehicle-emission standards. Nature Clim. Change 1, 59–66 (2011).

  14. 14.

    et al. Ancillary benefits of reduced air pollution in the US from moderate greenhouse gas mitigation policies in the electricity sector. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 45, 650–673 (2003).

  15. 15.

    , & The ancillary benefits from climate policy in the United States. Environ. Res. Econ. 50, 585–603 (2011).

  16. 16.

    , & The influence of location, source, and emission type in estimates of the human health benefits of reducing a ton of air pollution. Air Qual. Atmos. Health 2, 169–176 (2009).

  17. 17.

    , & Environmental accounting for pollution in the United States Economy. Am. Econ. Rev. 101, 1649–1675 (2011).

  18. 18.

    , & Uncertainty and variability in health-related damages from coal-fired power plants in the United States. Risk Analysis 29, 1000–1014 (2009).

  19. 19.

    et al. Analysis of climate policy targets under uncertainty. Climatic Change 112, 569–583 (2012).

  20. 20.

    , & Distributional impacts of carbon pricing: A general equilibrium approach with micro-data for households. Energy Econ. 33, (Suppl. 1) S20–S33 (2011).

  21. 21.

    ENVIRON User’s Guide: Comprehensive Air Quality Model with Extensions, Version 5.3 (ENVIRON International Corporation, 2010).

  22. 22.

    Abt Associates Inc. BenMAP, Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis Program. User’s Manual, version 4.0 (US EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, 2012). Available at: (2013)

  23. 23.

    & Cost concepts for climate change mitigation. Clim. Change Econ. 04, 1340003 (2013).

  24. 24.

    US EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Federal Implementation Plans to Reduce Interstate Transport of Fine Particulate Matter and Ozone in 27 States (Office of Air and Radiation, 2011);

  25. 25.

    , & Overview of EMF-21: Multigas mitigation and climate policy. Energy J. (special issue 3)1–32 (2006).

  26. 26.

    Markets in licenses and efficient pollution control programs. J. Econ. Theory 5, 395–418 (1972).

  27. 27.

    US EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, 2011);

  28. 28.

    The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  29. 29.

    An Integrated Assessment of Air Pollutant Abatement Opportunities in a Computable General Equilibrium Framework Master of Science Thesis, MIT Technology and Policy Program (2012);

  30. 30.

    US EPA Industrial Economics, Inc. Uncertainty Analyses to Support the Second Section 812 Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Clean Air Act (Office of Air and Radiation, 2010);

  31. 31.

    et al. Health damages from air pollution in China. Glob. Environ. Change 22, 55–66 (2012).

  32. 32.

    , , & Measuring welfare loss caused by air pollution in Europe: A CGE analysis. Energy Policy 38, 5059–5071 (2010).

  33. 33.

    , , , & Toward integrated assessment of environmental change: Air pollution health effects in the USA. Climatic Change 88, 59–92 (2008).

  34. 34.

    , & Impact of climate change on ambient ozone level and mortality in Southeastern United States. Int. J. Environ. Res. Publ. Health 7, 2866–2880 (2010).

  35. 35.

    et al. Impacts of global climate change and emissions on regional ozone and fine particulate matter concentrations over the United States. J. Geophys. Res. 112, D14312 (2007).

  36. 36.

    , & Air quality resolution for health impact assessment: Influence of regional characteristics. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 14, 969–978 (2014).

  37. 37.

    et al. Estimating the national public health burden associated with exposure to ambient PM2.5 and ozone. Risk Anal. 32, 81–95 (2012).

  38. 38.

    & Effect of climate change on air quality. Atmos. Environ. 43, 51–63 (2009).

  39. 39.

    Climate Change 2007: Mitigation (ed Metz, B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  40. 40.

    , , & Distributional implications of alternative US greenhouse gas control measures. B.E. J. Econ. Anal. Policy 10 (2010)

  41. 41.

    & A Global General Equilibrium Model with US State-Level Detail for Trade and Environmental Policy Analysis (MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, 2013);

  42. 42.

    , , & Distributional Impacts of a US Greenhouse Gas Policy: A General Equilibrium Analysis of Carbon Pricing, US Energy Tax Policy (ed Metcalf, G. E.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

  43. 43.

    CMAS SMOKE v2.7 User’s Manual (Institute for the Environment, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2010);

  44. 44.

    US EPA Guidance on the Use of Models and Other Analyses for Demonstrating Attainment of Air Quality Goals for Ozone, PM2.5, and Regional Haze (Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, 2007);

  45. 45.

    US EPA Air Quality Modeling Final Rule Technical Support Document (Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, 2011);

  46. 46.

    & Influence of air quality model resolution on uncertainty associated with health impacts. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 12, 9753–9762 (2012).

  47. 47.

    CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006);

Download references


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.

Author information

Author notes

    • Tammy M. Thompson

    Present address: Colorado State University Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, 1375 Campus Delivery, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA

    • Sebastian Rausch

    Present address: Department of Management, Technology, and Economics, ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), 8032 Zurich, Switzerland


  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, 77 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Tammy M. Thompson
    •  & Sebastian Rausch
  2. MIT Engineering Systems Division, 77 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Rebecca K. Saari
    •  & Noelle E. Selin
  3. MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, 77 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Noelle E. Selin


  1. Search for Tammy M. Thompson in:

  2. Search for Sebastian Rausch in:

  3. Search for Rebecca K. Saari in:

  4. Search for Noelle E. Selin in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Tammy M. Thompson or Sebastian Rausch.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history





Further reading