Does sprawl make the urban heat island effect worse?

urban heat island effect by city
urban heat island effect by city

Cleveland experiences the fourth strongest urban heat island effect in the United States. Could our sprawling development patterns be to blame? (courtesy of Debbage and Shepherd, 2015).

A few weeks ago, NASA officially announced that the record-breaking, “Godzilla” El Niño event that dominated much of our weather over the past year plus had finally come to an end.

But while the monster has returned to its hibernation deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, its impacts have already been and will continue to be felt across the United States. Around the same time that it made this announcement, NASA also revealed that April and May were the warmest such months on record in the US, meaning that every month since October 2015 has broken the existing record for that month. This eight-month streak of heat is, obviously, unprecedented. To date, the average temperature in 2016 is 1.9°F (1.08°C) above the average for the 20th century, making it a full 0.43°F (0.24°C) above the mark for the first five months of 2015.

You remember 2015, right? The warmest year on record? Well, not for long. NASA scientists are already more than 99% certain that 2016 will break that record, just as 2015 had claimed the mantle from 2014.

The impacts of 2016’s extreme heat

The extreme heat is having clear effects. It is contributing to wildfires consuming wide swathes of the West. Ozone levels are higher than normal across the country, as high temperatures foster the development of harmful, ground-level ozone more readily. So far, Greater Cleveland has already experienced six days when ozone levels exceed 70 parts per billion (ppb), the most at this point since 2012.

But the most acute impact of high temperatures heat-related mortality, a subject that I’ve written about considerably. Extreme heat is the deadliest type of disaster in the US, killing more people than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined each year. As I’ve discussed in the past, climate change is only exacerbating this issue; the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that the global death toll from extreme heat rose by around 2,300% from 2000-2010, compared to the previous decade.

change in disaster deaths by decade

The change in the number of deaths, by disaster, from 1991-2000 to 2001-2010 (courtesy of WMO).

Nearly all regions have seen a spike in dangerous heat, but the risk of heat-related mortality is not distributed evenly. While an individual’s vulnerability to extreme heat is the function of a number of factors, one of these is where s/he lives. Generally speaking, those of us living in cities are at greater risk due to the so-called urban heat island (UHI) effect. I won’t go too far into the science behind the UHI effect; suffice it to say that the combination of dark surfaces, a lack of urban trees, and the production of waste heat from various sources like air conditioners increases the temperature of cities, relative to rural areas. According to the U.S. EPA, the temperature of a large city can be more than 20°F higher than surrounding rural areas under the right (or wrong?) conditions.

Last September, Forbes published an article examining the scale of the UHI in various cities throughout the US. Strikingly, it included a map (see above) stating that Cleveland has the fourth strongest UHI effect in the country. Now, if you’re one of the literally tens of people who has inexplicably read something I’ve posted on this site, you may be familiar with my general dislike of sprawl. I’ve discussed research linking it to population decline, limited social mobility, climate change, and poor air quality, among other things.

So, I wondered, could Cleveland’s strong UHI effect be the result of our development pattern? Given that sprawl affects so many important phenomena, it seems reasonable to assume it would have an effect on UHI, right? To the peer-reviewed literature! [Cue 1970s Batman transition music].

Is suburban sprawl actually linked to the urban heat island effect?

At first glance, it may seem odd to posit that suburban sprawl would play a role here; the phenomenon is called the urban heat island effect, after all. But a handful of studies strongly suggest that sprawling development patterns do, in fact, exacerbate the UHI effect.

Two of the most convincing papers come from Brian Stone, Jr., a professor at the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning and an expert on urban environmental planning and climate change.

In a 2006 study (paywalled) that he coauthored with Jon Norman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stone examined the link between land use patterns and the UHI effect in Atlanta. The researchers broke properties into groups based on four variables: extent of impervious surfaces, lawn and landscaping, tree canopy, and the number of bedrooms per residential structure. This categorization enabled them to study the magnitude of surface warming produced by property type.

Stone and Norman concluded that the size of residential lots – in other words, residential density – was closely tied to black body flux, a measure of surface warming. As one moves from the highest density lot type to the lowest density, the amount of surface heat released increased 6-fold. Other land use features closed tied to suburban and exurban development – namely large lawns – also exacerbate the UHI effect. A one unit increase in the area of a plot covered by lawn and landscaping increases the net black body flux by 0.51 units.

As the authors conclude,

The results of this analysis provide compelling evidence that the size and material composition of single-family residential parcels is significantly related to the magnitude of surface warming in the Atlanta study region. Specifically, smaller, higher density parcels were found to be associated with a lower net black body flux than larger, lower density parcels…

[The] results of this study support the hypothesis that lower density, dispersed patterns of urban residential development contribute more surface energy to regional heat island formation than do higher density, compact forms.

Connecting sprawl and the UHI across cities

On its own, one study does not prove the relationship. Fortunately, Stone followed up with a 2010 paper that he co-wrote with Jeremy Hess and Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington, which studied the connection between urban sprawl and the number of extreme heat events (EHEs) in 53 cities from 1956-2005.

To measure the relationship, they took the correlation between the mean annual change in the number of EHEs from 1956-2005 and the sprawl ranking for each of the cities in 2000. Whereas the most compact cities experienced 5.6 more extreme heat days in 2005 than in 1956, that number was 14.8 for the most sprawling cities. In other words,

The most sprawling cities experienced a rate of increase in EHEs that was more than double that of the most the most compact cities…These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that urban sprawl contributes to EHE frequency.

Exploring some competing research

Now, I should note that there is other research that does not jibe with Stone’s work. Last year, Neil Debbage and Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia took another look at urban form and the urban heat island effect. Using a different measure for UHI (the difference in average rural and urban temperatures) and a different measure for urban form (an index measuring various variables of city shape, contiguity, and land uses), Debbage and Shepherd studied the degree to which city configuration affected urban heat in the 50 largest US metro areas from 2001-2010.

Contrary to Stone, Debbage and Marshall found that both more compact and more sprawling cities experience a stronger UHI effect, provided they are highly contiguous. That is, the contiguity of urban form may matter more than its composition; designing cities so that they are made up of either cul-de-sacs or skyscrapers as far as the eye can see makes them more vulnerable to extreme heat. According to the authors,

A ten percentage point increase in the spatial contiguity of high-intensity urban development, the equivalent of shifting roughly from Orlando to Seattle, was predicted to enhance a city’s average UHI intensity by 0.4°C…[In turn] a ten percentage point increase [in low-intensity urban development] was predicted to enhance a city’s annual average UHI intensity by 0.3°C. Therefore, as suggested by the bivariate analysis, both low and high-density urban land uses appear to amplify the UHI effect if they are high contiguous.

Importantly, Debbage and Marshall note that, while compact development may not solve the UHI on its own, it does provide a litany of other benefits, from improved air quality to better public health. Accordingly, urban planners may want to promote less contiguous, higher density urban development by designing networks of smaller green spaces, expanding the urban tree canopy, and installing white and green roofs throughout cities. A 2014 study by Stone and colleagues found that implementing these types of policies can offset projected increases in heat-related mortality due to climate change by anywhere from 40-99%.

Wait, so does sprawl make the UHI effect worse?

So what can we take away from all of this?

First, yes – the evidence does suggest that sprawl exacerbates urban heat islands. Low-density, suburban-style development increases the amount of impervious surfaces, which raises lowers the surface albedo of urban areas. It also increases the amount of excess waste heat that cities produce, as larger houses require more energy. And sprawl typically leads to forest clearance for development, reducing the extent of the urban tree canopy. All told, these factors increase the amount of heat cities generate, and they prevent this additional heat from dissipating rapidly at the urban fringe.

Second, the fact that sprawling development patterns are not the only type urban form that increases the UHI effect may not be as relevant as it may seem. While dense urban areas may also promote UHIs, they also make it easier to address both the causes and effects of heat-related mortality risks. Residents of dense cities produce fewer carbon emissions per capita, mitigating climate change. And the economies of scale in these dense neighborhoods increases the efficacy of mitigating extreme heat; opening a cooling station or installing shade trees are more effective in these areas, for instance.

All told, we can add the urban heat island effect to the list of social problems that sprawl makes worse. Maybe we should rename it the (sub)urban heat island effect?

When it comes to bike lanes, if you build it, they will shift

bike to work day
bike to work day

Cleveland area commuters congregate downtown for Bike to Work Day on May 20 (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

When it comes to mobile emissions, not all bike rides are created equal.

The cyclist who drives her bike into downtown to take part in Critical Mass or rides along the Towpath on a Saturday afternoon does not actually eliminate vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to any extent. (This is why the National Bike Challenge’s methodology tends to irk me).

None of this is to say that these rides are somehow inferior or less than those taken for transportation; they’re not. Recreational riding is good for public health, enjoyable, and it increases the number and visibility of cyclists on roads. But it is somewhat disingenuous to claim they improve air quality or mitigate climate change.

How do we calculate the emissions savings from bike projects?

Now, we already know that shifting people from cars to bikes can go a long way towards promoting these ends. The problem is that we lack good tools to let us demonstrate this on the small scale. How do we prove, definitively, that investing in a particular piece of bike infrastructure gets people to change their travel mode? And how can we calculate the associated emissions reductions?

In some ways, recreational cycling may make this process more difficult. Traditional methods, like bike counts, don’t distinguish between those who are riding for recreation and those who are riding for transportation. Knowing the difference between the two and being able to isolate that segment of the latter who would have otherwise driven is essential for cycling advocates. We need to be able to quantify the demonstrable benefits of bike infrastructure in order to get funding for projects under certain programs, particularly the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement program.

In part because we struggle to get accurate data, bike infrastructure projects remain a small sliver of overall CMAQ projects. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates, for instance, that CMAQ needs to invest $3.5 million in bike projects to reduce one ton of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), compared to just $38,000 for diesel vehicle retrofits and $76,000 for idle reduction programs. Perhaps the cost-benefit ratio for bike projects would improve if we had better data on how bike infrastructure directly affects mode choice.

New research may provide an answer

Fortunately, researchers are beginning to develop better tools to do just this. In a new study (paywall) in the journal Transportation Research Part A, researchers Seyed Amir H. Zahabi, Annie Chang, Luis F. Miranda-Moreno, and Zachary Patterson explore how the built environment and accessibility to bike infrastructure affects mode choice and GHG emissions among commuters in Montreal.

In the study, the authors broke Montreal down into a series of 500-square meter neighborhoods based on population density, employment density, cycling network density, transit accessibility, and land use mix. It defined neighborhoods using one of five typologies: downtown, urban, urban-suburb, inner suburb, and outer suburb.

Using this approach, they sought to answer two main questions. First, what are the effects of the built environment and the network connectivity of the transportation system on cycling rates during the period in question (1998-2008)? Second, how did cycling rates and the associated GHG emissions change over this period?

In order to study the first question, they estimated the effects of the neighborhood typologies on cycling rates. However, this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. One cannot directly estimate this effect on mode choice, as people often self-select into certain types of neighborhoods that fit their preferred mode. For example, I consciously looked for apartments in certain parts of Washington, DC so that I could be within a short walk of a Red Line station. The same holds for cyclists, who may choose to live in more bike-friendly areas.

When your independent variable (in this case, neighborhood type) is not completely independent from your dependent variable (commute mode choice), we say they are endogenous. The researchers employed a statistical approach, known as a simultaneous equation model, which allows them to control for this endogeneity.

Drawing the link between bike lanes and GHG reductions

To study their second research question, they utilized a variable that allowed them to measure the distance a person lives from the nearest bike path or lane. This enabled them to consider how increasing or decreasing that distance may affect commute mode choice and GHG emissions.

It’s this second question that I want to focus on, as it gets to the heart of the issue I raised earlier. Fortunately, the authors provide some concrete evidence that investing in bike infrastructure does foster mode shift. When it comes to bike lanes, if you build it, people really do come.

Based on their results, they found that reducing the distance that a person lives from the nearest bike facility increase the odds that s/he will bike to work by 3.7%. In Montreal, the city expanded its bike network to 648 kilometers (402.6 miles) in 2014, from 603 km (374.7 miles) in 2008. The expansion directly led to a 1.7% decrease in vehicle GHG emissions within the city.

This reduction stacks up well with alternative emissions control options. As the authors conclude,

As in other studies, it is found that cycling infrastructure accessibility is positively linked to bicycle usage, playing a positive role in reducing transportation GHG emissions, by shifting the mode share of bikes. Although this effect may appear small (about 1.7%), it is as big as the estimates we have found in our previous research when converting all the transit diesel buses to hybrid technology and electrifying the commuter trains in Montreal at the same time. This is to say that the GHG benefit from adding low-cost new cycling infrastructure can be as important as other more costly strategies.

Hopefully this type of research can provide further, tangible justification for incorporating bike infrastructure in the urban toolkit to tackle climate change. We need to build real (preferably protected) bike lanes in order both to increase the number of people biking regularly and broaden the type of people biking from hardcore recreational cyclists to normal people using bikes as a transportation mode. Because, while recreational biking is great, only transportation biking can help us solve these pressing crises

Increasing mode shift is a great tool for improving air quality, public health

bike ferdinand
bike ferdinand

My trusty 2012 Trek FX 7.3, Ferdinand. Yes, like Magellan.

If it’s the first week of May, that can only mean one thing! No, not May Day. No, not Star Wars Day. No, not Cinco de Mayo. No, not Mother’s Day. Look, clearly you’re not going to get this on your own.

That’s right – it’s Air Quality Awareness Week. The U.S. EPA has designated this year’s theme as “Show How You Care About The Air.” EPA and various other government entities that work on air quality, including NOACA, are encouraging people to take a few simple steps throughout the course of the week that can have a positive, tangible impact on air quality.

One of these actions is changing your commute mode. The overwhelming majority of Americans (76.4% in 2013, to be exact) drive alone to work. Here in Northeast Ohio, that number is significantly higher, with values ranging from 79.9% in Cuyahoga County to 87.9% in Lake County. If you total the five counties in the NOACA region, 772,262 of the 938,244 workers over the age of 16 – 82.3% – drive alone to work. Given that transportation accounts for a significant portion of key pollutants in the region – 50% of nitric oxides (NOx) and 15% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – reducing the share of single-occupancy vehicles (SOV) on the region’s roads has the potential to improve air quality.

The question becomes by how much. While active transportation undoubtedly holds the potential to cut mobile emissions, some research suggests its immediate impact is somewhat limited. As I’ve shown, increasing overall fuel economy can do more to mitigate climate change than land use planning.

Moreover, research from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that bike and pedestrian are not the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. According to the agency’s analysis of projects funded through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), active transportation lowers emissions far less, per dollar spent, than diesel vehicle retrofits, truck stop electrification, or idle reduction projects. This may help to explain why bicycle and pedestrian projects accounted for just 7% of CMAQ funding in FY2013.

Short trips and cold starts

On the aggregate, it’s likely true that, at least in the short-term, retrofitting diesel engines in heavy-duty vehicles or reducing the amount of fuel that truck drivers use overnight may be a more effective way to cut emissions. But personal vehicles account for a much larger share of mobile emissions, and a significant share of these emissions come from short trips.

According to the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS), the median distance of a light-duty vehicle trip in the U.S. was just four miles; nearly half of all personal trips (43.4%) were less than 3.2 miles. These short trips account for an outsized share of vehicle emissions due the issue of cold starts.

A cold start occurs when both the car engine and its catalytic converter have cooled to within 10℉ of the ambient air temperature. In order for an engine to operate at peak efficiency, it needs to warm to roughly 140℉. Until it reaches this point, the vehicle will fail to fully combust gasoline, ensuring that it releases emissions at a higher rate.

One recent study (PDF) notes that cold engines can emit four times as many hydrocarbons, three times as much carbon monoxide (CO), and twice as much NOas a warm engine. All told, the authors conclude that excess emissions attributable to cold starts account for 10-30% of total mobile emissions.

The benefits of mode shift on a national scale

Given these facts, it appears that shifting travel mode for short trips could go a long way to improving air quality. Additional research backs up this hypothesis.

In a 2010 article (paywall) in the journal Transportation Research Part D, Audrey de Nazelle and her colleagues examined the benefits of shifting short vehicle trips to active transportation. While their travel data were older (they used the 1995 NHTS), they found that 62.5% of all trips less than 0.5 miles occur in cars. This share that climbs to 87.1% for 0.5 to 1-mile trips, 92.2% for 1- to 2-mile trips, and 94.3% for 2- to 3-mile trips.

The authors examined the effects of shifting 35-70% of short social trips and 15-45% of commutes, respectively, from driving to active transportation. Nationwide, this mode shift would cut daily VOC emissions by 30-70 tons, CO emissions by 400-900 tons, and NOx emissions by 15-35 tons. It would also reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 0.8-1.8%, cutting greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 20,000-46,000 tons per day. They compared these results to emissions reductions from existing CMAQ projects, finding that promoting widespread mode shift for short trips could lead to emissions reductions that were “orders of magnitude greater.”

How can mode shift improve air quality and public health in Cleveland?

But that study looks at the U.S. as a whole. I often hear people from people that the weather in Northeast Ohio is too harsh, making it impossible to walk or bike for 6-9 months a year. The deck is also stacked heavily towards driving in this region, as our SOV mode share attests. Are national estimates really applicable here? Surely things are different here than in Portland or Austin or San Diego.

Fortunately, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison already considered this issue. In a 2012 study, they analyzed the impact of replacing half of all vehicle trips less than four kilometers (2.4 miles) with biking in the 11 largest metropolitan areas in the Midwest, including Cleveland. And they assumed this mode shift would only occur during cycling season, which they defined as April-October.

The authors estimated that eliminating these short car trips would slash residential vehicle use in these cities by one-fifth. This outcome would reduce the frequency of cold starts from 59.9% to 21.9% in urban Census tracts and from 55.6% to 20.3% in suburban tracts. Across the entire study area, PM2.5 concentrations would fall by 1-2%, while NOx and VOC levels would fall by 5-12% and 10-25, respectively.

Based on their findings,

Eliminating short car trips and replacing 50% of them by bicycle would result in mortality declines of approximately 1,295 deaths per year, including 608 fewer deaths due to improved air quality and 687 fewer deaths due to increased physical activity…We estimate that the combined benefit from improved air quality and physical fitness for the region would exceed $8.7 billion/year, which is equivalent to about 2.5% of the total cost of health care for the five midwestern states in the present study.

Here in Cleveland, PM2.5 values would fall by 0.05 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), preventing 53 premature deaths, 184 asthma attacks, and 1,405 lost workdays per year. The additional physical activity would save another 42 lives per year, increasing the total benefits to $664 million annually.

And these numbers don’t account for the health benefits of increased physical activity. That prevents another 687 premature deaths and provides $3.8 billion in total benefits each year. This mode shift would further reduce GHG emissions by 3.9 billion pounds.

Clearly, the air quality benefits cities can obtain by promoting mode shift for short trips are significant. While mode shift, on its own, cannot bring every city into attainment for air quality standards or halt climate change, it is an important component of a comprehensive approach to both issues. Increasing the mode share of active transportation can produce additional dividends, as it benefits public health, enhances the livability of neighborhoods, improves safety for all road users, and just generally elevates the quality of life in communities around the country.

So show you care about air quality this week and take shorter trips on foot or by bike. Even if the weather isn’t perfect, it will be well worth it.

Actually, fuel economy standards are a great way to tackle carbon emissions

plug-in hybrid prius
plug-in hybrid prius

A Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid vehicle (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

It feels like it’s been ages since I wrote a post taking down something that someone else has written. I get the impression that is what people enjoy on the World Wide Web these days, plus it’s pretty fun to rip apart a person’s specious argument – using peer-reviewed literature and well-sourced facts, of course.

With that in mind, I feel somewhat obligated to address an op-ed I read in the Los Angeles Times on Monday from Salim Furth, a research fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. In the piece, Furth argues that state and federal fuel economy standards are a poor policy tool for limiting mobile greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that they unfairly harm low-income families. Instead, he calls for California state officials to focus their attention on land use reforms that would “allow denser, environmentally conscious construction” to “make residents less dependent on car.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable. I’ve written in the past about how promoting denser, infill development patterns in sprawling metro areas like Cleveland could go a long way towards improving air quality and limiting GHG emissions. To the extent that Furth is calling for these sorts of policies, we are probably on the same page.

Except, when you dig into his argument, it collapses like the proverbial house of cards. As the folks at Climate Nexus argued, “Instead of suggesting policy that would preserve more land to act as a carbon sink, Furth writes that California should instead relax the permitting process so that development is even easier.” And this is exactly what he argues. While it’s true that NIMBY-ism can inhibit the development of denser, multifamily housing (see: Washington, DC), it takes a certain amount of rhetorical gymnastics to assert that the fault lies with environmental regulations. I guess that’s what you get when dealing with stuff from Heritage.

Comparing fuel economy to land use planning

But none of this gets to the central thesis of Furth’s argument – that fuel economy standards are less effective tools for curbing GHG emissions than “streamlined” permitting and “more permissive zoning laws.” Why enforce regulations that cost the average family roughly $4,000 to only mitigate global climate change by a fraction of a percent?

Leaving aside the fact that Furth demands California repeal state fuel economy rules that even he admits were superseded by President Obama’s 2011 CAFE standards, does his main point hold water? Well, he never actually provides a shred of evidence to support his argument, for one. How can we know if the CAFE standards will cut GHG emissions less than land use reform if we don’t have numbers for the latter?

Fortunately, there exist a number of studies and reports that dig into the potential for land use reform to mitigate climate change. At the local level, several of these analyses have come from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are federally-mandated agencies that conduct transportation and environmental planning activities for urban areas.

Back in 2008, California lawmakers passed SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which requires every MPO in the state to develop a sustainable communities strategy (SCS) that outlines its approach to meeting its GHG emission reduction target. These targets are established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). To what extent can land use planning by MPOs contribute to these these goals? And do the projected reductions in GHG emissions exceed those from fuel economy standards?

In a word, no. CARB estimated (PDF) in 2010 that regional transportation and land use policies can only account for one-sixth of the GHG reductions generated by federal CAFE and low-carbon fuel standards through 2020. That proportion will likely increase after 2020, as the full effects of those long-term policies are realized, but they still pale in comparison. Given that Furth is writing about California, you think he’d be aware of these data.

Evidence from outside California

Findings from MPOs in other states back up CARB. Washington, DC’s MPO found similar results (PDF). The region’s leaders set a goal of reducing GHGs 80% versus a 2005 business as usual (BAU) scenario by 2050. According to their analyses, enacting new land use and transportation policies at the metro level can only make up 3.3% of this 80%. Increasing CAFE standards to 99 could account for 30% of the reduction, however, making this approach 10 times more effective. While raising CAFE standards would likely lead to something of a rebound effect by making driving cheaper, the results are still impressive.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PDF) – Seattle’s MPO – has also modeled the potential GHG savings from various policies. They found that more compact development and better pricing transportation could cut GHGs by 6% and 9% compared to BAU, respectively. Emissions control strategies, like stricter fuel economy standards and the electrification of the vehicle fleet, have the potential to cut GHG emissions by 25-43%, depending on how aggressive they are. Even in the more conservative scenario, these standards outperform land use controls. The benefits of land use policies take an outsized role in Seattle, as transportation accounts for two-thirds of the city’s total emissions, because it’s electric grid is so much cleaner than the national average. Accordingly, Seattle is the best case scenario for Furth’s argument, but it still falls short.

ghg savings from different scenarios

Potential GHG reductions from various policy instruments under different scenarios (courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Council).

 

And just to hammer my point home further, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) published a comprehensive report on this topic back in 2009. The authors modeled the impacts on GHG emissions from 2000 to 2030 and 2050 under two scenarios, which assumed that 25% and 75% of all new housing would be be built in compact development areas, respectively.

While scenario 1 only sees GHG emissions fall 1.3-1.7% by 2050, while scenario 2 bumps this number up to 8-11%. But, again, tightening CAFE standards wins the day. The study finds that adding aggressive fuel economy requirements to scenario 2 can increase the GHG reduction potential up to 39-51%. The report states, “In short, over the longer time frame (i.e. to 2050), the impacts of continuing improvements in fuel economy beyond 2020 on energy use and CO2 emissions significantly outstrip those from more compact development.”

As is so often the case, an op-ed emerging from The Heritage Foundation is tripped up by the think tank’s old nemesis – math.

In the effort to cut GHG emissions and battle climate change, we don’t need to privilege better land use planning at the expense of tighter fuel economy standards. We need to harness every policy tool at our disposal, and these are two great tastes that taste great together. While it’s true that better fuel economy can undermine some of the GHG benefits of compact land use, we should clearly pursue these approaches in tandem. For, in the long-run, more compact, mixed-use development and more efficient vehicles are both important tools for improving air quality, reducing transportation costs, revitalizing our neighborhoods, enhancing public health, and battling climate change.

What impact will climate change have on air quality?

sammis power plant
sammis power plant

The Sammis Power Plant near Steubenville, Ohio, which the PUCO agreed to allow FirstEnergy to continue operating through 2024 on the backs of ratepayers (courtesy of EarthJustice).

Though it’s hardly a secret that I view climate change as the preeminent issue of this generation, I usually try to bring some sobriety to the apocalyptic current that some of my fellow climate hawks bring to the table. Whether it’s casting a skeptical eye on the hype about climate change and conflict or challenging the use of the term “climate refugee,” I try to stay fairly level headed.

So it would seem reasonable that I would be somewhat wary of the hype surrounding the major new report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program on the public health impacts of climate change. I mean, as Kyle Feldscher of the Washington Examiner tweeted, somewhat snarkily,

But, here’s the thing, sometimes when Chicken Little screams that the sky is falling, you really do need to look up. And that’s the case with climate change. As this report lays out in tremendous detail, the public health implications of inaction are staggering, whether it’s the estimated 11,000 additional deaths per year from heat-related mortality, an increase in vector- and water-borne illnesses, or a spike in the frequency and intensity of disasters, things are going to suck unless we do something like yesterday.

Importantly, due to the lengthy atmospheric lifetimes of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly CO2, some of these impacts are already baked into the cake. While the report makes it clear that we can stave off the worst effects on public health by taking immediate action to curb GHG emissions, the fact remains that we will inevitably have to adapt to that which we cannot mitigate and suffer that which we cannot adapt to. But since most of my focus is on air quality issues these days, I wanted to take a closer look at that chapter in the report.

Tracing improvements in air quality

First, it’s crucial that we note how much air quality has improved in the United States since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA). According to the U.S. EPA, ambient levels of the six criteria air pollutants fell by a combined 63% from 1980 to 2014, including an astounding 99% for lead. All this occurred even as GDP grew by 147%.

This trend has paid significant dividends for Northeast Ohio. In Cleveland, for instance, the 3-year average for carbon monoxide (CO) from 1972-1974 was 17.3 parts per billion (ppb), well in excess of the 10 ppb standard. From 2012-2014, this value had fallen to just 4.3 ppb, a 75% decrease. Back in 1978, the 3-year average level of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is generated largely from burning coal, stood at a mind boggling 497 ppb. In 2014, that level was down to 71 ppb, below the EPA’s 75 ppb standard.

The benefits of this dramatic improvement in air quality have been staggering. One study from the EPA found that, by 2020, the 1990 CAAA will prevent 230,000 premature deaths and generate benefits totalling $2 trillion. According to renowned University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone, the 1970 CAAA extended the life expectancy of the average American by 1.6 years, totalling more than 336 million additional life-years. Here in Cleveland, we live, on average, 2.3 years longer because of this landmark piece of legislation.

But, as I’ve discussed before, a lot of people seem to think that these numbers mean we’ve moved beyond air pollution, that it’s something we’ve relegated to the past. That’s clearly not the case, given that a 2013 study estimated air pollution led to more than 200,000 premature deaths in 2005. In Cleveland, that number was 1,363, with the majority (62%) of deaths coming from electricity generation (466) and transportation (384). Clearly we have a long way to go, and incremental improvements in air quality will do a lot to winnow this number down further.

Will climate change affect this trend?

But that’s where climate change comes into play. The two primary bogeymen in the world of air quality are ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The formation of both of these pollutants depends heavily on meteorological conditions, particularly the former. When the conditions are right, ozone and PM2.5 levels can spike, with serious consequences for anyone who breathes air.

Now, obviously the most important thing that environmental officials can do is work to reduce emissions of ozone precursors, along with direct PM2.5 and its precursors. If there are simply fewer nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compound (VOCs) molecules floating around, there will inevitably be less ozone in the air.

And this is true – to a point. That’s why the EPA estimates that, thanks to existing regulations like the controversial Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) and the Tier 3 Vehicle Emissions standard, ozone and PM2.5 levels will continue to decline. The agency projects, for instance, that ozone levels in Cuyahoga County will fall to 59 ppb in 2025 from 75 ppb currently.

Unfortunately, this fails to account for the impacts of climate change. Global warming is likely to make the types of meteorological conditions conducive to ozone formation – hot, still summer weather – considerably more common going forward. As the report’s authors note, “consequently, attaining national air quality standards for ground-level ozone will also be more difficult, as climate changes offset some of the improvements that would otherwise be expected from emissions reductions.”

To illustrate this effect, let’s look at recent history in Cleveland. From 2008 (when the EPA finalized its 75 ppb standard) through 2011, there were an average of 9.5 days each year when ozone levels exceeded the standard. This number plummeted further during the previous two mild summers, with 1 day and 3 days in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But then there’s 2012, the hottest year on record in the region. During that summer, we had 28 exceedance days, the highest number since 2002.

What will climate change’s impact be on air quality?

So what, exactly, does the report project? Well, it uses data from a 2015 paper by a group of EPA scientists that aims to “quantify and monetize the climate penalty” from higher ozone levels tied to climate change through 2030. Because the effects of climate change on PM2.5 are so difficult to suss out, the report focuses exclusively on ozone.

The authors use two global climate change scenarios, known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) to estimate the effects. RCP 8.5 is a worst case scenario, while RCP 6.0 is slightly less pessimistic model that assumes we will take some action to curb emissions.

These models allow them to estimate the number of climate change-attributable, ozone-related premature deaths and illnesses in the US. While RCP 6.0 leads to somewhere between 37 and 170 premature deaths each year, RCP 8.5 could generate 420 to 1,900 additional early deaths. The authors find that “the economic value of these adverse outcomes ranges from $320 million to $1.4 billion for the RCP 6.0 scenario and from $3.6 to $15 billion for the RCP 8.5 scenario.”

climate change ozone impacts

The projected impacts of climate change on ozone levels and ozone-related mortality in the US for RCP 6.5 and RCP 8.0 (courtesy of Fann et al.)

These health impacts will not be distributed evenly, as the map above shows. Here the Midwest, particularly along the Great Lakes, significant global warming could drive ozone levels up by more than 5 ppb leading to tens or dozens of additional deaths. These findings are similar to those from a 2007 study (PDF) by Michelle Bell et al. in the journal Climatic Change. This study examined the impact of significant climate change on ambient ozone levels in 50 US cities by 2050. Bell et al. concluded that ambient summertime ozone levels would jump by 4.4 ppb, and every city studied would see an increase in the number of exceedance days by 2050. The average city would experience 5.5 more exceedance days per year, a 68% increase compared to the 1990s, while Cleveland could see a spike of 140%, from 7.5 to 18 days per year. The study uses the 1997 ozone standard of 85 ppb, meaning that the number of exceedances would likely be much higher for the current 2015 standard of 70 ppb. All told, ozone-related mortality was projected to increase 0.11-0.27%.

While this seems relatively insignificant, I should note that ozone is not a major cause of air pollution-related death here. If climate change was to have comparable impacts on particle pollution levels, these costs would increase by orders of magnitude. Unfortunately, this remains a real possibility. One study estimates that, while global PM2.5 concentrations may fall by up to 18%, they could increase by anywhere from 1 to 4 micrograms per cubic meter in the eastern US.

Ultimately, it’s not the projected number of additional deaths or asthma exacerbations that matters. What this report shows is that we have done an excellent job of cutting levels of harmful air pollutants, even as we increased emissions of a seemingly harmful one – CO2. But now, unless we take immediate action to slash the latter, all our great work on the former is at risk.

SB 310 makes it far harder for Ohio to comply with the Clean Power Plan

obama clean power plan
obama clean power plan

President Obama delivers his speech announcing the final Clean Power Plan on Monday, August 3 (courtesy of Susan Walsh/Associated Press).

Last Monday, President Obama stood at the podium in the East Room of the White House to announce “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change” – the final Clean Power Plan (CPP). As the President noted in his remarks, this final rule amounts to “the first-ever nationwide standards to end the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from power plants” into our atmosphere. The EPA projects that, if fully implemented, carbon emissions from US power plants should be 32% lower in 2030 than in 2005.

Here in Ohio, the rule was met by a mixture of excitement from those of us who want the country to take action on climate change and outrage from those who oppose such steps. Attorney General Mike DeWine joined 11 other attorneys general in a lawsuit to derail the rule, while notorious Ohio coal firm and serial litigant Murray Energy intends to file no fewer than 5 separate suits.

Changes to the final Clean Power Plan that affect Ohio

Given all of this controversy over the CPP, it may be wise to take a step back and consider just how the rule would affect Ohio. Last year, I explored how Ohio fared in the proposed CPP and how the state’s clean energy standards put it on a solid path towards meeting its carbon reduction targets. While that analysis was relevant at the time, we need to revisit it, as the final CPP is different from the proposed version in a lot of ways. For the sake of this post, here are a few of the key changes that will affect Ohio:

  1. State compliance plan date: Under the proposed CPP, states needed to submit their compliance plans to the EPA by June 30, 2016. The final rule pushes this date back to September 6, 2018, but with a caveat. States still need to submit either a final plan or an interim plan in 2016, but they can request a 2-year extension of the deadline if they meet certain criteria. This matters, as Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler has already stated that he will wait until to submit a plan until he sees how the rule fares in the federal court system, which may take years.
  2. Emissions cuts to begin later: Whereas the proposed CPP required states to begin cutting carbon emissions in 2020 and continue through 2030, the final rule delays that effective date until 2022. This 2-year delay is important for Ohio as a result of SB 310, as I will explore later.
  3. Changing the way that emissions reductions are measured: Originally, the EPA planned to measure emissions reductions as the change in how many pounds of carbon emissions a state produces per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy it produced (“rate-based”). But the Agency has now added a “mass-based” approach, which shows reductions in the actual tons of carbon states emit. Additionally, EPA has changed the state-by-state targets to account for the fact that the utility sector operates within 3 broader regions. As a result, Ohio’s rate-based target was strengthened from 1,338 lbs/MWh to 1,190, up to 37.4% from a 27.7%. The mass-based reduction remains at a comparable 27.85%.
  4. Eliminating the energy efficiency benchmark: The proposed CPP created federal guidelines for state compliance plans that included 4 main building blocks: improved coal plant efficiency, more use of natural gas, increasing renewable energy generation, and improving demand-side energy efficiency. EPA has removed the energy efficiency building block, which has significantly reduced the CPP’s legal vulnerability. Fortunately, EPA did not scrap demand-side energy efficiency entirely. Instead, it will allow states to include it as part of their state compliance plan.

How Ohio can meet its Clean Power Plan requirements

Fortunately, Ohio is well-positioned to meet its emissions reduction targets under the CPP, as multiple analyses have shown.

In a 2013 analysis, the World Resources Institute found that, if Ohio fully implemented its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) that the state passed nearly unanimously back under SB 221, it could cut its carbon emissions by 17% through 2020.

WRI’s analysis also calculated the emissions savings from the other 2 building blocks in the CPP. It estimated that Ohio could cut its emissions by 7% by 2020 if it increased the operating capacity of its existing natural gas fleet (building block 2). The state could further cut emissions by 2% if it improved its coal plant efficiency by 2.5% (building block 1). Combined, these four actions would get Ohio to a 26% cut by 2020, before the CPP’s requirements even kick in. And if Ohio continued to implement its EERS and RPS beyond their current end date, the state would be able to meet and exceed its required carbon targets.

wri ohio emissions clean power plan

Ohio can cut its carbon emissions by up to 24% through 2020, depending on the policies it implements under the Clean Power Plan (courtesy of World Resources Institute).

SB 310 will make increase the costs of compliance

While Ohio is currently in decent shape, SB 310 will unquestionably make it more difficult and more expensive for the state to comply with the CPP.

The two-year freeze on the RPS and EERS will deprive the state of renewable energy and energy efficiency gains that it could count towards future benchmarks. Though it pushed back the date when states have to demonstrate emissions cuts by 2 years, EPA wants to encourage states to reduce their carbon emissions before that point. Accordingly, the final CPP creates a Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), which allows states to get credits for renewable energy generation and energy efficiency measures taken in 2020 and 2021 and apply these to reduction targets in subsequent years. For every 1 MWh of wind or solar that a utility brings on line, it will get a 1 MWh credit towards future emissions reductions. And for every 1 MWh saved through energy efficiency projects in low-income communities, utilities will get a 2 MWh credit.

Because SB 310 freezes Ohio’s RPS and EERS for 2015 and 2016, the RPS and EERS benchmarks will be lower during 2020 and 2021. RPS benchmarks will decline to 6.5% and 7.5% from 8.5% and 9.5%, respectively, while the efficiency requirement for 2020 will be halved to 1%. According to projections from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), the state’s major electric utilities would have generated almost 25.9 million MWh of renewables in 2020 and 2021; however, thanks to SB 310, this number will fall by nearly 25% to 19.4 million MWh.

The freeze will also cut into the amount of low-income energy efficiency projects carried out in the state. From 2009-2012, Ohio’s major electric utilities realized  55,084 MWh in energy savings from low-income projects. This accounted for just under 1% of total savings. Based on estimates from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Ohio was on course to save 56,410 MWh from energy efficiency in 2020 and 2021 before SB 310. Using revised energy savings from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which account for SB 310’s effects, this number would fall to 46,866 MWh. Because these savings get double credit in the CEIP, Ohio will lose out on 19,048 MWh of emissions reduction credits (ERCs).

All told, the 2-year freeze on Ohio’s clean energy standards enacted under SB 310 will cause the state to miss out 6,476,386 MWh of ERCs. If we assume that each of those MWh would have offset a unit from a fossil fuel plant, we can estimate how many tons of carbon emission reductions the state will lose. EPA has calculated that Ohio’s power plants release 1,900 pounds of CO2 per MWh; as such, Ohio will lose ERCs worth roughly 6,152,567 short tons of CO2. Applying a social cost of carbon at $40 per ton means that this one effect of SB 310 will cost the state more than $246 million.

But that doesn’t account for any potential reductions in the RPS and EERS benchmarks. The bill’s language makes it perfectly clear that the Ohio legislature intends to “enact legislation in the future… that will reduce the mandates.” Any future reductions to these clean energy standards will make it that much harder for Ohio to comply with the Clean Power Plan.

What should Ohio’s elected officials do?

Clearly, SB 310 carries a big price tag for Ohio. The state’s elected officials should take action on three fronts to address this issue.

First, the legislature needs to pass a bill restoring Ohio’s clean energy standards as enacted under SB 221. It should not wait until the freeze comes to an end on December 31, 2016. Instead, legislators should use the final report from the Energy Mandates Study Committee, which is expected to be released this fall, as a reason to restore the standards effective January 1. Interestingly, OEPA Director Butler told Gongwer (subscription required) that, despite his reservations, he realizes restoring the standards from SB 221 would help Ohio meet its emission reductions targets. Beyond this step, however, the legislature should look to pass a follow-up bill by the end of the next session that will extend and, preferably, strengthen these standards through at least 2030.

Second, Ohio should begin exploring how it can partner with other states to form a regional carbon trading system. The final CPP explicitly allows and even encourages states to pursue this route. Several Midwestern states have been meeting under the auspices of the Great Plans Institute to discuss this option, but Ohio has conspicuously been absent. It would be in the state’s best interest to work with its neighbors in order to lower the cost of compliance.

Third, Ohio needs to double down on low-income energy efficiency. According to Policy Matters Ohio, the state currently weatherizes roughly 7,000 homes per year. This number accounts for just 1.5% of the households in the state who seek emergency assistance for their utility bills each year. Not only will ramping up low-income weatherization allow the state to get additional credits through the CEIP, it will generate tangible benefits. Every $1 million invested in weatherization leads to the creation of 75 jobs.

Ultimately, SB 310 has cost Ohio considerably, but it’s not too late to mitigate those effects. Every day that Ohio continues to languish under this bill will continue to add to those costs. It’s time to act.

Update (8/13/2015, 3:45pm): Since I posted this, the Union of Concerned Scientists has updated its state-by-state projections on the Clean Power Plan. In June, they concluded that Ohio was on track to meet and actually exceed its 2020 interim reduction benchmark under the proposed CPP. The new analysis finds that Ohio is now on track to achieve 84% compliance with its rate-based goal and 130% compliance with its mass-based goal for the 2022 benchmark. Without implementing additional policies, however, the state would only 44% and 56% of its rate- and mass-based targets, respectively.

Additionally, I noted that, based on the EPA’s social cost of carbon ($40 per ton), the emissions reductions that Ohio will miss in 2020 and 2021 as a result of SB 310 would carry a cost of more than $246 million. This number does not account for the costs of other air pollutants that power plants release in addition to CO2. Based on a 2010 study, which reviewed the literature on the air quality co-benefits of carbon reductions, the average air quality benefit for developed countries per ton of CO2 is $44. Based on this number, Ohio would not only incur climate change-related costs of $246 million, it would also forego air quality improvements worth more than $270 million. Combined, SB 310 will cost the state nearly $517 million in 2020 and 2021 alone.

Climate change will lead to more deadly traffic accidents

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to transportation issues in climate change circles. This makes sense, given that the transportation sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Mobile sources produced 1,806 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMtCO2e) in 2013 (27%), trailing just electricity generation, which accounted for 21% of total emissions (2,077 MMtCO2e). Emissions from the transportation sector have also grown by 16.4% since 1990, making it the second fastest growing emissions source behind agriculture.

Accordingly, the Obama administration has taken a number of steps to address the issue. These include corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for passenger vehicles, new investments in electric vehicles (EVs), proposed stricter rules for emissions from heavy-duty trucks, and the recent endangerment finding for GHGs from air travel. Each of these steps will be important if the US is to meet its goal to cut overall GHGs by 26-28% by 2025, as outlined in the administration’s pledge for the upcoming Paris Conference.

How climate change affects transportation

But the other side of this equation – how climate change will affect the US transportation sector – has garnered far less focus. The 2014 National Climate Assessment included a detailed chapter on the transportation sector, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) manages a pilot program to help transportation agencies assess their systems’ vulnerability to a changing climate. We know, for instance, that more extreme rainfall could wash out roads, that sea level rise endangers coastal transportation infrastructure, and that accelerated freeze-thaw cycles may increase the costs of road maintenance. But much research in this area remains to be done.

A few weeks ago, Resources for the Future, a leading environmental economics think tank, released a report that examines one as yet unexplored issue – how climate change may influence traffic accident rates. I’ll admit that the idea that climate change could affect the number of car accidents in the US seemed a bit far fetched to me a first. People tend to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to connect everything to climate change these days. But this report provides a convincing case that, barring aggressive action both to cut carbon pollution and become more resilient, climate change could make our roads even more dangerous.

The connection between weather and traffic accidents

In order to explore the relationship between climate and traffic accidents, economists Benjamin Leard and Kevin Roth first examined existing evidence on how changes in weather patters affect accident rates. Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on the number of traffic accidents that result in property damage, injuries, and fatalities for 20 states, the authors identified the existing relationships between temperature and precipitation fluctuations and traffic accidents. When temperatures fall below 20ºF, accidents that result in property damage increase by 9.3%. The relationship between temperature and accidents that lead to injuries is weak, but it appears highly significant for fatal traffic accidents. In contrast to property damage accidents, fatal accidents are 9.5% more likely on days when temperatures climb above 80ºF.

The relationship between precipitation and traffic accidents is more complex. Both rainfall and snowfall increase the incidence of property damage accidents; when rain and snow totals exceed 3 centimeters, accidents increase by 18.8% and 43.3%, respectively. This effect changes when we consider accidents leading to injuries and fatalities. In the former category, rain and snow totals over 3 centimeters lead to 14.4% and 25.9% increases in accidents, a relative reduction of 23.4% and 40.2%, respectively, compared to property damage accidents. But Leard and Roth found that fatal traffic accidents are actually less common on days with rainfall. On days with 1.5-3 centimeters of rain, fatal accident rates fall by 8.6%; this result is highly statistically significant. In contrast, this same amount of snowfall leads to 15.5% more fatalities. According to the authors, these results indicate “that drivers behaviorally compensate for these conditions,” but these adjustments are not enough to reduce the elevated accident risk presented by snowfall.

Importantly, the study also finds a strong correlation between weather conditions and the number of trips people make by foot, bike, or motorcycle (the authors term these “ultralight duty vehicles,” or ULDs). Unsurprisingly, these ULD trips decrease significantly as temperatures dip below 40ºF and as the precipitation begins to fall. Put a different way, as the weather improves, an increasing number of people choose to walk, bike, or motorcycle. This increases their exposure to automobiles, elevating the risk that they may be the victim of an accident. Accordingly, when the authors removed pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists from their models, fatality rates fell by roughly half.

Climate change will cause more traffic fatalities

The authors then used these observed relationships to project how climate change could affect traffic accident rates in the future. They utilize the IPCC’s A1B scenario – a middle of the road scenario that assumes global temperatures will rise by around 4ºC – to project changes in weather and traffic accidents through the end of the century. According to the Climate Action Tracker, we are currently on pace for 3.6-4.2ºC of warming in the absence of further action, making A1B a good model for this study.

As global temperatures increase, precipitation will gradually shift from snowfall to rain. The authors find that this change will decrease the number of annual traffic fatalities by roughly 253. However, the changing climate will also induce an increase in the number of trips people take by foot, bike, and motorcycle – leading to an additional 849 traffic fatalities per year – which brings the net change to 603 additional deaths per annum. This spike in traffic fatalities will carry an annual cost of $515.7 million. All told, by 2090 climate change will lead to an additional 27,388 traffic-related fatalities in the US, carrying total costs of approximately $61.7 billion.

Now, I should note that this study does not explicitly address a few issues.

Research shows that as the number of pedestrians and cyclists increases, the chance that they will be struck by a car declines. Each time that the number of pedestrians and cyclists doubles, the risk that they will be injured in an accident falls by a third. But this decline in the relative risk of injury does not overcome the increase in the absolute number of injuries, which actually rises by a similar percentage. Leard and Roth’s study finds similar results. Furthermore, their use of fixed effects should account for this safety-in-numbers effect.

Moreover, the study does not directly account for the fact that expanding bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure tends to make roads safer and reduce the number of accidents. Protected bike lanes, for instance, can cut the risk of injury by up to 90%. To be fair, Leard and Roth admit that this is a potential shortcoming of their study, noting that failing to control for this effect “overstates the long-run impacts of climate change.” They also explicitly point out the important role that these types of interventions can play in climate adaptation planning,

Our results do not indicate that reliance on walking, biking, and motorcycling imply large fatality rates, as other developed English speaking and western European nations have per-capita fatality rates that are often less than half that of United States. Some countries like Sweden with extraordinarily low fatality rates have pursued a variety of urban design and legislative changes to reduce fatalities with policies such as replacing intersections with roundabouts to slow vehicles where they are likely to encounter pedestrians. Relatively simple changes like these may prove to be effective, although unglamorous, adaptation strategies to climate change.

How can this study inform climate policy?

I have two main takeaways from this study.

1. Climate change will affect nearly every aspect of our lives, and we will never be able to fully anticipate and prepare for it. That’s what happens when humanity performs a global science experiment on the planetary systems that facilitated the development of human civilization.

2. It provides even more evidence of the benefits of investing in better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly when accounting for climate change. It emerges as a win-win-win.

Promoting active transportation is a vital component of any mitigation strategy, as every mile we don’t drive keeps roughly one pound of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

This type of people-centric infrastructure  also represents an important step that local governments can take to enhance their resilience to the impacts of climate change. We know that it may help to offset potential increases in fatal accidents due to climate change. But, more than that, it can also serve as a key lifeline to supplement existing road networks, which may be endangered by a changing climate. When roads are washed away and subway tunnels flooded, being able to ride your bike or walk to access resources and social services becomes that much more important.

Lastly, these types of investments would be valuable even in the absence of climate change, as they improve quality of life. Active transportation benefits air quality and public health, which reduces premature mortality and health care costs. Complete streets can also raise property values, increase business activity, create jobs, and make neighborhoods safer. All of these things make communities more vibrant and better able to withstand external shocks, whether from economic or climatic forces. In this way, pedestrian and cyclist-friendly infrastructure is exactly the type of no-regrets investment that climate resilience experts say we should be making now, regardless of the inherent uncertainties.

Condoms are key for promoting responsible consumption

community health worker
community health worker

A community health worker talks to women in SIerra Leone (courtesy of H4+ Partnership).

At first blush, the idea that one action to reduce conspicuous consumption could bring about a sustainable future seems far-fetched. Sustainability is all-encompassing. There is no silver bullet; we need a thousand silver BBs. But not all actions are created equally. Some are so central that, without them, we cannot hope to bring about the future we want. Ensuring that all 7 billion people have the access to and education needed to properly use condoms is one such action.

Worldwide, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for contraception. This gap has startling consequences. In 2012, at least 85 million pregnancies were unintended. If every woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy could access modern contraceptives, there would be 22 million fewer unplanned births and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

The condom is perhaps the most important tool for tackling this issue. This simple piece of latex tackles a host of problems that undermine sustainability.

First, condoms help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). More than 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2013, while 35 million people live with HIV/AIDS. In turn, people contract nearly 350 million cases of STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, each year. These preventable infections make life far more challenging and can even be deadly. One such disease, HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

Second, condoms are vital for curbing population growth and addressing climate change. If contraceptive use increased by 14%, we could prevent 1 billion births by 2050. This step will be key for keeping global temperatures below 2ºC. Curbing population growth could, on its own, produce 16-29% of the emissions reductions we need to stave off dangerous climate change. This issue will be particularly important in the developed world, where each person’s carbon footprint is far larger. Here in the United States, where half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the average person uses 25 times more resources in his/her lifetime than one in a developing country. Clearly, condoms can reduce carbon emissions and tackle conspicuous consumption in tandem.

Third, ensuring that everyone can use condoms will increase our level of resiliency. Pregnant women and infants are uniquely vulnerable to a number of threats, like natural disasters and diseases. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women were four times more likely to die. And, because mosquitoes are attracted to pregnant women, malaria hits them especially hard. Infection during pregnancy causes 10,000 maternal and 200,000 infant deaths every year in Africa. Reproductive health, particularly contraceptive use, needs to be a centerpiece of health and disaster management planning.

Fourth, the condom can be a key tool for women’s empowerment. Every day, millions of women are trapped by the issues related to unprotected sex. Giving them the ability to choose when and how they reproduce is essential to putting their destinies in their hands. Condoms can help reduce the amount of time a woman spends pregnant, curb postpartum depression, and slash maternal deaths. As the WHO noted, “Without fertility regulation, women’s rights are mere words. A woman who has no control over her fertility cannot complete her education, cannot maintain gainful employment…and has very few real choices open to her.”

Clearly, while the condom is not a sufficient tool for a sustainable future, it is a necessary one. Condoms help liberate men and women alike from illness, vulnerability, environmental harm, and a lack of choice.

How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.

Geoengineering makes climate change less polarizing! It’s still a bad idea.

sardar sarovar dam
sardar sarovar dam

India’s controversial Sardar Sarovar dam, located on the Narmada River (courtesy of Mittal Patel).

About 20 minutes after I posted my piece yesterday arguing that we are nowhere near ready to begin researching geoengineering, the Washington Post‘s new Energy and Environment section ran its own piece on the topic. But this post, by Puneet Kollipara, took a vastly different tone.

Rather than delving into the NRC report, it looked at a study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which explored various tactics to make debate around climate change less polarizing. The researchers broke participants into three groups and laid out the reality about climate change. One was told that the best approach was to curb carbon pollution, the second heard a pro-geoengineering message, and the third group acted as a control. From the post:

Conventional wisdom might hold that telling people about geoengineering would make them less concerned about climate change’s risks by making them complacent about it; if geoengineering works, then maybe climate change isn’t such a big deal. But that’s not what the researchers found. The geoengineering group viewed climate change as posing a slightly higher risk than did the control group and a similar level of risk as did the anti-pollution group…

[W]hen it came to the scientific information on climate change that the researchers made all participants read, the geoengineering group was actually less polarized on whether the science is solid than the control group was…Not only was it a matter of conservative skepticism of climate science shrinking in the geoengineering group, but liberals in the geoengineering group became more likely to question the science.

This result really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, when you think about it. Conservatives have long been receptive to geoengineering as a way to address climate change. Newt Gingrich has pushed it as a solution for years, while the American Enterprise Institute endorsed solar radiation management as an “evolving climate policy option.” Geoengineering fits into the broader conservative mindset that pushes engineering solutions to environmental problems. As Clive Hamilton wrote in his book Earthmasters,

As the identity of conservative white males tends to be more strongly bound to the prevailing social structure, geoengineering is the kind of solution to climate change that is less threatening to their values and sense of self….they are consistent with the ideas of control over the environment and the personal liberties associated with free market capitalism.

Geoengineering represents just the latest iteration of this ethos. It’s the same worldview that says massive tree plantations can solve deforestation. Or that calls for building giant indoor, vertical farms as a way to address population and nutrition issues. Or that suggests we can address biodiversity loss by resurrecting species in a laboratory. Why address the causes of environmental degradation, when we can just use our ingenuity to treat the symptoms?

But while these kind of engineering solutions for environmental problems may sound great in the short-term, we really need to consider their long-term implications. As I noted in my previous post, geoengineering is different from these other examples for one key reason: once we go down that road, we are locked into it, forever.

Probably the closest analogue that I can come up with is dam building. Building large dams provides us an engineering solution to a variety of challenges – a lack of energy, unpredictable rainfall, disasters. We can create clean electricity to power cities and industry, easily irrigate our fields, mitigate the risk of drought, and hold back floodwaters. It seems like a great idea on the surface. Of course, megadams create a whole host of unintended consequences, from impeding the movement of fish to drowning villages. But, more than that, they lock us into the need to actively manage nature for the long run.

Jacques Leslie explores all of these issues, and more, in his book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. (I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a user-friendly primer on the major controversies over bid dam projects like Sardar Sarovar, Belo Monte, or Three Gorges.)

In the book, Leslie explores the consequences of Australia’s scheme to regulate the Murray River with thousands of dams, canals, and weirs. He spoke with Mike Harper, a former Australian natural resources manager turned activist, about the effort to save the endangered Chowilla floodplain. Before Australians began altering the landscape, the Chowilla experienced an irregular, but essential, cycle of floods and droughts that regulated the ecosystem. With the advent of the water management scheme, the water table rose several feet, bring salt deposits to the surface, effectively poisoning the land. The only way to address this crisis without jettisoning the entire system is for the Australian government to actively replicate this flood/drought cycle in perpetuity:

The ecosystem will have to become dependent on an artificial regime that must be applied forever, [Harper] said. “You might get a good manager for ten years, but the one after him might be a bad one. If we have to manipulate the environment all the time, we’re going to fuck it up sometime.”

Precisely. When you endeavor to play God and actively manage the environment, you are placing the well being of the system in the hands of a few bureaucrats. If Australia’s civil servants screw up, they may irreparably damage a critical ecosystem. If you think that’s bad, spread the risk to the entire planet and multiply it by a thousand.

This is where geoengineering stops being the libertarian panacea some conservatives apparently believe it to be. If we want to control our atmosphere to address climate change, we will need to amass an enormous array of scientists and civil servants who devoted to this task. Because of the global nature of the endeavor and the risks of sparking a geoengineering “arms race” I noted in my last post, no one state or small group of states can be entrusted with this responsibility. We will need to create a supranational organization, perhaps akin to a vastly more powerful UN Environment Programme or World Meteorological Organization. Given how shaky our track record has been on global governance to this point, I’m not particularly convinced that we can successfully regulate our climate for several hundred years. You thought cap and trade was a recipe for big government.

At the risk of being labeled a Tea Partier, I am much more inclined to support a free market approach to climate change like a carbon tax. Hell, you can even use the revenues to offset income taxes. Ultimately, let’s just say I am highly skeptical that geoengineering constitutes a silver bullet to depoliticizing the debate around climate change, let alone to the climate crisis writ large.