Research Article: Energy, Transportation, Air Quality, Climate Change, Health Nexus: Sustainable Energy is Good for Our Health

Date Published: February 16, 2017

Publisher: AIMS Press

Author(s): Larry E. Erickson, Merrisa Jennings.


The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has the potential to improve air quality and human health by encouraging the electrification of transportation and a transition from coal to sustainable energy. There will be human health benefits from reducing combustion emissions in all parts of the world. Solar powered charging infrastructure for electric vehicles adds renewable energy to generate electricity, shaded parking, and a needed charging infrastructure for electric vehicles that will reduce range anxiety. The costs of wind power, solar panels, and batteries are falling because of technological progress, magnitude of commercial activity, production experience, and competition associated with new trillion dollar markets. These energy and transportation transitions can have a very positive impact on health. The energy, transportation, air quality, climate change, health nexus may benefit from additional progress in developing solar powered charging infrastructure.

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The Paris Agreement on Climate Change of December 2015 [1] has the potential to benefit all people. At this conference, the United Nations prioritized several goals, including reducing carbon emissions, which are critical to maintaining healthy populations and ecosystems. If these goals can be accomplished quickly, then the rates of change of the anthropogenic effects such as global warming, rising sea levels, and acidification of oceans can be lessened. This will have great value for human health and the environment. The transitions to generate all electricity without carbon emissions and to electrify transportation will take many years and cost trillions of dollars; however, these changes are central to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and reducing the impacts of climate change on human health.

Along with the environmental degradation, there are many human health issues associated with climate change, energy, transportation, and air quality [3]. From the coal mines to coal burning power plants, there are environmental health impacts. Many are associated with air quality. Along with the immediate effects of air pollution, the long term effects of increasing temperatures will also be quite problematic. Since the acceleration of global warming is happening too quickly for the human species to evolve, heat related health problems will result in deaths and illness due to heat strokes, hyperthermia and exhaustion [3].

Combustion of fossil fuels causes short term threats such as air pollution and long term threats like climate change through the emission of carbon dioxide. Coal fired power plants have been an environmental concern because they are a significant source of carbon emissions and health damaging air particulates. Despite the immediate effects they have on the health of surrounding communities, some coal burning power plants are kept in service for more than 50 years. One alternative to coal is natural gas. Natural gas is a cleaner fuel that is used in many power plants that are operated to generate electricity to meet peak power requirements. It emits less carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced as compared to coal. Due to the immediate threats of coal combustion, one of the higher priorities is to reduce the use of coal for heating, power generation, and industrial processes.

Transportation has a negative impact on health because of its negative impact on air quality. The particulates in diesel exhaust often contain organic compounds that are associated with cancer [2],[8],[9]. Vehicle emissions, including particulates, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds, are elevated in urban areas, and they impact human health [2]. The global health impacts associated with air pollution have economic costs of more than one trillion dollars per year [2],[13],[14] and there are many deaths attributed to the impacts of transportation on air quality.

The transition to sustainable energy and sustainable transportation has the following major challenges:

The impact of climate change on economic production has been estimated to be about 23% by Burke et al. [16]. If no action is taken to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions, in 2100 economic production will be 23% lower than if there were no climate change. In another study, the annual cost of climate change in the U.S. is estimated to be about $270 billion/year in 2025 [19]. The gross domestic product in the U.S. was about $18 trillion in 2015 and the gross world product was about $107 trillion in 2014.

There is general agreement that it would be beneficial to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, and have better health because of the electrification of transportation and the transition to the generation of electricity using sustainable energy [1]–[5],[13]–[19],[21]–[25],[37]. Williams et al. [24] have shown that carbon emissions can be reduced substantially by electrifying transportation and transitioning to renewable sources to generate electricity. A book [2] and a comprehensive review paper [37] have been published recently on solar powered charging in parking lots.

Significant progress has been made with respect to the electrification of bus transportation [2],[29]–[35]. Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) purchased two electric buses in 2014 that were made by New Flyer Industries, and has been testing them in daily revenue service since October 2014 [30]. Each bus has a 300 kWh battery pack which is sufficient for a range of 80 miles. The city plans to add 20 to 30 additional electric buses over the next few years [30]. The CTA estimates that each bus will save $25,000 in fuel and reduce public health costs by $55,000 per year because of better air quality.

Air in many locations in the world has concentrations of particulates, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen and sulfur oxides from combustion processes that affect human health. If all combustion processes associated with the generation of electricity and transportation were replaced by sustainable energy generation and electric vehicles, air quality would improve significantly.




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