Connecting Researchers and Practitioners to Advance Policy-Relevant Research on Air Quality, Health, and Equity

Written by
Keely Swan, Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment
Feb. 15, 2024

Wei Peng organized a workshop on September 18-19, 2023 in Washington, DC on “Improving state-level energy decisions to address air quality, health, and equity goals”

As the United States ramps up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, shifting the energy system away from fossil fuels also brings opportunities for improved air quality and health benefits. With careful planning, efforts to decarbonize the energy system can also advance equity goals. While the federal government passed legislation to spark major climate action in the past three years, including the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, much of the implementation work will be happening at the state and local levels.

Beginning to develop a research agenda that responds to specific decision needs of policymakers at state and local levels on these issues was the main goal of a Princeton University-led workshop that took place in September in Washington, D.C.. Prof. Wei Peng, a core faculty member of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment and an assistant professor of public and international affairs and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, convened the workshop on “Improving state-level energy decisions to address air quality, health, and equity goals” to bring together decision-makers and researchers in order to identify barriers for integrating health and equity considerations into energy decisions. The organizing team also includes Klaus Keller from Dartmouth, Vivek Srikrishnan from Cornell and Casey Helgeson from Penn State.

“Support for clean energy is growing fast, thanks to countries’ climate commitments and the plummeting technology costs. But there is a huge and under-explored opportunity to align the goals of low-carbon energy transition and air quality improvement,” Peng said. “Through this workshop, we hope to learn from the stakeholders and get a better sense of what the research community can do to support coordinated decisions for energy, health and equity.”

The workshop focused mainly on state and local decisions, because states and local communities have major roles to play in implementing IRA-related energy programs; they have also been leading the air quality management and public health initiatives for decades. However, research at the state and local level on these topics is also critical for better understanding and addressing disparities. For example, while air quality across the United States has improved overall in the last 50 years these benefits have not been equally distributed. Air pollution is still worse for communities of color.

Recognizing that certain communities have not received the same benefits of general environmental improvements, it is critical for researchers and policymakers to pay particular attention to equity as America works to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

"Health benefits of the energy transition are likely enormous but are often underestimated or ignored. Levering existing tools to quantify health benefits can add value in decision-making. But capturing equity impacts remains a challenge,” said Susan Anenberg, a workshop participant and professor and director of the GW Climate and Health Institute at George Washington University.

Over the course of two days, more than 35 participants representing various universities, federal agencies (EPA and DoE), state environmental agencies of NJ, PA, and MD, think tanks, NGOs, and foundations presented their work to one another and engaged in networking sessions. 

Workshop participants looking at a poster taped to a window.

Source: Wei Peng

Day one of the workshop covered the evolving federal and state energy landscape; the complexity of state and regional air quality management; expected health co-benefits of the clean energy transition; and a discussion of research needed in order to improve decision-makers’ ability to compare policy options with respect to their likely outcomes for equity and environmental justice. The second day of sessions focused on questions related to designing and better supporting decision-relevant research.

Peng’s goal in bringing this particular group of stakeholders together is to improve communication around challenges and inform academics who are interested in undertaking research that can be useful to the environmental agencies responsible for crafting and implementing policies.

The workshop was also successful in highlighting examples of work already happening at the state-level as well as research needs to improve these efforts. For example, participants from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection discussed the recent NJ Environmental Justice Law and the comparative analyses that will be required to ensure overburdened communities are better protected from additional environmental or public health stressors resulting from new facilities. This law could serve as an example for other states to follow. As the new law is rolled out, it will also provide opportunities for the agency to discover where there are gaps in knowledge that could benefit from further research support. 

The workshop concluded with an extended networking session to develop concrete ideas for future collaborative research projects that could inform real-world actions related to energy, health and equity. Conversations coalesced around a few key themes including availability of data at the hyperlocal scale, processes to more quickly collect state and local-level data for analysis and produce messaging on health and economic benefits of policies, and mechanisms for connecting policymakers with researchers to address a specific policy need within a required timeframe.

Peng looks forward to building on the connections made during this inaugural workshop through her lab at Princeton. This workshop was the first of a series of events planned as part of the Health Effects of Deep Decarbonization (HEALED) project. This event is supported by the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment (C-PREE) and SPIA in DC.