How electrification can change the air we breathe

16 January 2023
Air pollution impacts the health of people and the planet. Ramboll and EPRI examine how United States air quality can be improved by applying electrification and decarbonisation strategies in a recent Nature Communications publication.
San Francisco, California

San Francisco, California

Air quality and climate are interconnected. The chemical types that degrade air quality are normally co-emitted with greenhouse gases. Changes in one can cause changes in the other.

Strategically tackling air pollution brings significant benefits for economies, human health, and the climate. At the same time, addressing the climate crisis requires immediate and sustained investment to eliminate net global greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. This presents transformational opportunities for the US and the world - in terms of investing in and developing the clean technologies, infrastructure, workforce, and systems that help create more sustainable economies.

 
“Our research shows air quality can improve dramatically with energy system changes that slow down climate change,” says Dr Greg Yarwood, principal at Ramboll and co-author of the paper ‘Economy-wide evaluation of CO2 and air quality impacts of electrification in the United States,’ published in Nature Communications during November 2022.“We found electrification can substantially lower CO2 and improve air quality, and decarbonisation policy can amplify these trends which yield immediate and localised benefits,” he adds.
 

Entering the electrification era

Dr Yarwood, together with Ramboll’s air quality specialists John Grant and Tejas Shah, partnered on the paper with analysts from the non-profit energy research and development organisation Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). They examined the CO2 and air quality benefits of electrification using a detailed energy systems model and a full-form photochemical CAMx air quality model in the US.

“Adopting electric end-use technologies instead of fossil-fuelled alternatives, known as electrification, is an important economy-wide decarbonisation strategy that also reduces criteria pollutant emissions and improves air quality,” according to the paper.

In line with the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, the Biden Administration is seeking pathways to reduce US carbon emissions towards net zero by 2050.

Like many nations, the US is considering strategies aimed at nation-wide and industry-sector-specific electrification and decarbonisation.

Benefits for people, planet, and profits

“Our model shows much improved ozone air quality in 2035 due to electrification as compared to 2016 baseline conditions, with even greater air quality improvements by 2050 by applying deep decarbonisation,” Yarwood says. ‘Deep decarbonisation' refers to the gradual elimination of carbon-emitting fuels, favouring more sustainable alternatives, and requires systemic changes to the US energy economy.
 
The air quality benefits of applying electrification and decarbonisation policies are immediate and sizable, especially given improved understanding of human health impacts of air pollution exposure.

The article comes at a perfect time as many of the world’s countries urgently seek a realistic blueprint to wean their economies off fossil fuels. 

Nature Communications is an open access, multidisciplinary journal dedicated to publishing high-quality research in all areas of the biological, health, physical, chemical and earth sciences.

Three ways electrification combats climate change 

  1. Replaces fossil fuels with renewable energy in transport, heating and cooling, and industrial applications
  2. Reduces total energy demand due to higher efficiency solutions compared to conventional technologies
  3. Reduces emissions in sectors where direct electrification is not yet possible by using clean hydrogen and Power-to-X
 

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to public health globally. Visit UNEP to learn more about the state of air pollution around the world.

To contact the editor of this article, email: Mercedes Beaudoin, Senior Copywriter, Ramboll

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