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Heatwaves will exacerbate air pollution inequalities

According to a recent study led by the North Carolina State University (NC State), droughts and heatwaves are likely to make air pollution worse for Californian communities that already have a high pollution burden, thus deepening pollution inequality along racial and ethnic lines. However, the experts argued that financial penalties for power plants could significantly reduce people’s exposure to air pollution, except during extreme heatwaves.

“We have known that air pollution disproportionally impacts communities of color, the poor, and communities that are already more likely to be impacted by other sources of environmental pollution,” said study lead author Jordan Kern, an assistant professor of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State. “What we know now is that drought and heatwaves make things worse.”

The experts estimated emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and fine particulate matter from power plants in California across 500 different climate scenarios that could occur in future years, based on historical wind, air, temperature, and solar radiation values on the West Coast between 1953 and 2008. Then they estimated air pollution within individual counties by using data about the location of power plants in California and the amount of electricity they would be generating under different climate scenarios.

The analysis revealed that pollution will be worse in the hottest and driest years, most likely due to increased demands in the use of air conditioning. Moreover, since droughts can impact the availability of hydropower, the excess electricity that will be necessary will rely on highly polluting fossil fuel plants.

“One of the things we were interested in was teasing apart the relative roles of drought, which can be chronic, lasting for months or years, versus heatwaves, which can happen like a flash in a pan,” Kern explained. “We found drought is a driver of chronic pollution exposure, but heatwaves are responsible for these incredible spikes in emissions in a short period of time.”

In addition, counties with a higher existing pollution burden, along with those more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity were more likely to be significantly impacted by a rise in emissions during droughts and heatwaves.

When they simulated the impact of three policies which taxed power generators for increasing air pollution, they found that such penalties could be highly efficient in reducing pollution during droughts, but unfortunately not during massive heatwaves. 

“Penalties make the more damaging power plants more expensive to operate, while it makes clean power plants comparatively less expensive. It incentivizes the system to switch to rely on more clean power plants, but that stops happening during really massive heatwaves. The power operators have no choice but to turn on every power plant. They can’t switch from the dirty power plants to the clean ones,” Kern concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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