Communities across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. could see substantial health improvements from just modest changes in air quality, according to a new preliminary study released by a team of researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston University School of Public Health and the University of North Carolina. By investing in clean transportation solutions such as enhanced transit, safe and bikeable streets, and vehicle electrification, states in the region would not only experience lower greenhouse gas emissions, but also a drop in local air pollution. At a time when clean air is desperately needed, the health benefits of the proposed program are a step in the right direction, but we will need significant complementary policies to bring us into a truly equitable clean transportation future.
TCI program is a good return on investment
The multi-university team examined the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional collaboration of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from on-road vehicles through regional transportation policies. At the same time, the program brings in proceeds to help build a clean transportation system, resulting in co-benefits such as improved health outcomes and lower air pollution. The team found that the monetized health benefits of the program can exceed the estimated proceeds. The program was estimated to result in air quality health benefits of $11.1 billion in 2032, including 4700 avoided asthma cases and 1100 avoided deaths, while the TCI proceeds that year are estimated to be up to $8.5 billion. Even if all the proceeds are channeled into clean transportation investments, the return on investment is still net positive.
This reduction in emissions can be achieved from investments in a modern and low-carbon transportation system. Currently, the transportation sector is responsible for 43% of greenhouse gas emissions in the region, but these emissions can be significantly reduced with expanded clean mobility options such as biking and walking, more use of public transit, and electrification of passenger cars, school and transit buses, and trucks. This assumes that current state zero-emission vehicle regulations and current fuel economy standards remain in place. In the study, most of the proceeds of the TCI program are re-invested, and the policy scenario with the greatest benefits is the one that has the most ambitious emissions cap (25 percent CO2 reduction from 2022 to 2032) and also dedicates the largest share of investment to public transit and active mobility.
Clean investments can help reduce inequitable exposure, but much more is needed
The study found a small reduction in inequitable air pollution exposure by race and ethnicity for all examined policy scenarios, but large disparities in air pollution by race and ethnicity persist in all five examined scenarios by 2032. Communities of color will continue to experience disproportionate levels of pollution unless there are additional complementary policies affecting specific areas.
A UCS study based on 2014 air pollution data showed that the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure due to on-road vehicles in the region was 66 percent higher for communities of color compared to the exposure for white people. This new health study shows that for the scenario with the most ambitious cap level, there is a decrease in PM2.5 exposure inequity, but the remaining inequity is still significant. Decades of policies that routinely left communities of color out of the decision-making process result in the picture we see today. It is unacceptable, and we need to do better.
Addressing these inequities is more urgent than ever, since COVID-19 has amplified existing disparities. The disease has disproportionately impacted people of color, and people exposed to higher levels of air pollution have been shown to be more vulnerable to the disease. An earlier study this year showed that even a small increase in PM2.5 leads to an 8 percent increased risk of dying from COVID-19.
Health benefits accrue in all counties across the region
The study estimates the expected changes in air pollution from three major air pollutants (fine particulate matter or PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide and ozone), associated with five TCI policy scenarios, which vary according to the design parameters of the policies in the program. Reducing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels in vehicles has the co-benefit of reducing the emission of these three co-emitted air pollutants, among others. The researchers used a multi-model approach that first estimates the air pollution changes at a 12km resolution, and then estimated two types of associated health impacts at county level: improved health from increased active mobility, like walking and biking, and improved health from cleaner air. This is then combined with census demographics data to estimate the inequities in air pollution exposure and health risks according to race, ethnicity and socio-economic status. The study also takes into account downwind impacts among states.
While health benefits are widespread, they are concentrated in major metropolitan areas and along highways. The researchers estimate a range of $2.7 to $11.1 billion in total avoided health impacts, depending on the policies implemented, covering premature deaths, asthma symptoms and traffic-related injuries. In the most ambitious scenario, which requires a 25% emissions reduction by 2032, 70 percent of the 1100 avoided deaths are due to increased biking and walking, which is responsible for a larger share of the total monetized health benefit ($7.4 billion from biking and walking, and $3.7 billion from air quality improvements). The least ambitious scenario modeled, corresponding to an emission reduction of 20% in 2032, leads to health benefits that are one quarter of this (total monetized benefit of $2.7 billion).
How does the TCI cap-and-invest policy work?
The TCI program, which is intended to start in 2022, places a declining cap on emissions from liquid fuel wholesale suppliers. The program is considering three emission cap levels from 2022 to 2032 (CO2 reductions of 20, 22 and 25 percent from 2022 to 2032). Each regulated entity buys allowances, each corresponding to a ton of emitted CO2, through auctions to cover its emissions, and proceeds from the auctions provide funding for further emission reductions as well as low carbon transportation programs. This cap-and-invest policy also creates mechanisms in case the price of a ton of CO2 becomes too high or too low. The TCI emissions caps have the potential to eliminate more than three times the CO2 currently covered by the other cap-and-invest program in the region, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
The process is moving in the right direction
Millions of people in the region live in areas with high exposure to air pollutants because of decades of decisions on where to build highways and housing. Disadvantaged communities are often located near busy roads, freight corridors and other sources of pollution, and are often bisected by highways. Throughout the TCI public engagement process, the states involved have heard from stakeholders that in order for the program to move forward, it must have guardrails in place to protect and focus on communities overburdened by transportation air pollution and underserved by the current system. For the program to be successful, it must not result in net harm and it must ensure that benefits accrue to these communities.
In late September 2020, the states announced the following equity commitments which will be in the final MOU:
- A regional commitment to a minimum of 35% from TCI proceeds for dedicated investments in disadvantaged communities
- Equitable processes: Establishment in each jurisdiction of Equity Advisory Bodies composed of diverse stakeholders, including residents of disadvantaged communities, to advise on decision-making and equitable outcomes.
- Transparency: An annual review of the impacts of each jurisdiction’s individual program, including equity, specifying how TCI proceeds are spent by each jurisdiction, and including lists of projects supported by TCI proceeds.
- Complementary policies: Acknowledgement that additional policies will be necessary to continue to reduce emissions from transportation.
Complementary policies are critical to the success of the TCI program
Cap-and-invest programs can be effective in making polluters pay for emissions, but they are not designed to guarantee local reductions of co-emitted air pollutants in particular neighborhoods. A suite of additional policies is needed for this purpose. Complementary policies have the potential to further reduce pollution from disadvantaged communities, advance goals of equity and environmental justice, and also create jobs and help communities recover from the effects of the pandemic. Environmental justice (EJ) communities need to know that concrete benefits will accrue in their communities, so complementary policies must be executed transparently and equitably, and spending must be prioritized on neighborhoods based on income level, race and ethnicity. There is an urgent need for increased state engagement with EJ communities to co-develop complementary policies as part of the final TCI Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This study can help inform stakeholder engagement, highlighting that the TCI program alone is not sufficient.
Here are some, but not all, of the complementary policies that the states should continue to advance:
- support and expansion of public transit
- electrification of school and transit buses
- low income fare programs for public transit systems
- electric vehicle rebate programs for low and moderate-income residents
- incentives for installing charging infrastructure in multi-unit dwellings
- improvement of pedestrian and bicycle safety
- air quality monitoring in all EJ communities.
Climate change and power plants were not in the study’s scope
The study did not estimate avoided climate damages, but TCI has estimated this to be in the range of $250 million to almost $900 million. Disadvantaged communities, as well as coastal and rural communities, stand to gain substantially from avoided climate damage, as the ravages of hurricanes, tornadoes, sea-level rise and flooding, extreme heat and fires have shown over and over again.
Preliminary studies conducted by the team indicate that health impacts from estimated emissions changes from the power grid are about an order of magnitude less than estimated health benefits from emission reduction from TCI policies. Disadvantaged communities are often located near dirty power plants. The researchers plan to estimate in more detail, in further work, the potential changes in the electrical grid from increased vehicle electrification.
Finally, the researchers remind us that the findings of this new study represent a subset of the information needed by the states to make decisions and recommend the use of other sources of knowledge on clean transportation systems.
The actual benefits of the program will depend on state action
The importance of this study cannot be overestimated. It provides quantitative evidence that can foster the important dialogue taking place among policymakers and stakeholders. The TCI MOU is expected to be signed at the end of the year, the moment when the 13 jurisdictions will decide whether to join the program.
The findings show that the range of monetized health benefits across the five policy scenarios is large, about four-fold, so there is a wide range of potential outcomes. Therefore, policymakers should push hard in their own jurisdictions, should engage with EJ communities and should collaborate with other states, so as to achieve the highest and most equitable benefits from the policies.
The benefits of the TCI program can be very significant. Right now, in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, fossil fuel producers are getting away scot free, and the TCI program would finally make these polluters pay for their damaging emissions. The study shows how proceeds from the program can be used to save thousands of lives, improve people’s health, improve mobility options, and how it can also further reduce emissions through vehicle electrification, as well as many other strategies, on our way to a clean and modern transportation system. However, to truly address inequity, states need to go above and beyond the current commitment of a minimum dedicated investment of 35% for disadvantaged communities.
This new study shows that TCI would reduce the inequity in air pollution exposure, but would not eliminate it, so states must commit to implementing complementary policies in a transparent and equitable manner that directly responds to the needs of disadvantaged communities and their proposed solutions.
TCI is just one piece of a much larger suite of transportation solutions needed in order to bring us into a truly equitable, clean mobility future.
Editorial update 10/7/20: This blog was updated to refine points about the MOU and to include the figure 35% as a minimum dedicated investment.