Publications

Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States

Download the document (originally printed in Environmental Pollution).

Trees remove air pollution by the interception of particulate matter on plant surfaces and the absorption of gaseous pollutants through the leaf stomata. However, the magnitude and value of the effects of trees and forests on air quality and human health across the United States remains unknown. Computer simulations with local environmental data reveal that trees and forests in the conterminous United States removed 17.4 million tonnes (t) of air pollution in 2010 (range: 9.0-23.2 million t), with human health effects valued at 6.8 billion U.S. dollars (range: $1.5-13.0 billion). This pollution removal equated to an average air quality improvement of less than one percent. Most of the pollution removal occurred in rural areas, while most of the health impacts and values were within urban areas. Health impacts included the avoidance of more than 850 incidences of human mortality and 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms.

Tax Carbon and Rebate the Money? That Could Be Expensive

Read the full story in BusinessWeek.

Carbon taxes could save the planet by reducing greenhouses gases that cause global warming. But there’s a debate over what to do with the money raised. A study released Friday concludes that the “cap and dividend” approach championed by Maryland Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen—rebating the money in lump sums to every U.S. resident—would benefit the most households but also be the most expensive.

The study (pdf) by economists at Resources for the Future, a think tank in Washington, evaluates the lump-sum rebate against two other approaches: using the tax revenue to cut taxes on capital, such as dividends and capital gains taxes, and using it to cut taxes on labor, such as taxes on wages, salaries, and bonuses.

Environmental Regulation: EPA Should Improve Adherence to Guidance for Selected Elements of Regulatory Impact Analyses

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What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used the seven Regulatory Impact Analyses (RIA) GAO reviewed to inform decision making, and its adherence to relevant Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance varied. According to senior EPA officials, the agency used these RIAs to facilitate communication with management throughout the rulemaking process and communicate information that supported its regulatory decisions to Congress and the public. However, it generally did not use them as the primary basis for final regulatory decisions.

EPA generally adhered to many aspects of OMB’s Circular A-4 guidance for analyzing the economic effects of regulations including, for example, considering regulatory alternatives and analyzing uncertainties underlying its RIAs. However, EPA did not always adhere to other aspects. Specifically, the information EPA included and presented in the RIAs was not always clear. According to OMB guidance, RIAs should communicate information supporting regulatory decisions and enable a third party to understand how the agency arrives at its conclusions. In addition, EPA’s review process does not ensure that the information about selected elements that should appear in the analyses—such as descriptions of baselines and alternatives considered—is transparent or clear, within and across its RIAs. As a result, EPA cannot ensure that its RIAs adhere to OMB’s guidance to provide the public with a clear understanding of its decision making.

In addition to using Circular A-4 (issued in 2003) to analyze the effects of regulations, EPA used more recent guidance developed by an interagency working group co-led by OMB and another White House office in 2010 for valuing carbon dioxide emissions. Applying this guidance while using Circular A-4 to estimate other benefits and costs yielded inconsistencies in some of EPA’s estimates and has raised questions about whether its approach was consistent with Circular A-4. Circular A-4 does not reference the new guidance and the new guidance does not include an overall statement explaining its relationship to Circular A-4. Without increased clarity about the relationship, questions about the agencies’ adherence to OMB guidance will likely persist.

In assessing EPA’s adherence to OMB guidance, GAO identified two other areas in which EPA faced challenges that limited the usefulness of some of its estimates. First, EPA did not monetize certain benefits and costs related to the primary purposes or key impacts of the rules GAO reviewed, such as reducing hazardous air pollutants and water quality effects. EPA officials said resource and data limitations constrained the agency’s ability to monetize these effects. OMB guidance acknowledges that monetizing effects is not always possible. However, without doing so, the public may face challenges understanding the trade-offs associated with regulatory alternatives. Second, EPA estimated effects of its regulations on employment, in part, using a study that, according to EPA officials, represented the best reasonably obtainable data when they conducted their analyses. However, the study was based on data that were more than 20 years old and may not have represented the regulated entities addressed in the RIAs. EPA officials said they are exploring new approaches for analyzing these effects but were uncertain about when such results would be available. Without improvements in its estimates, EPA’s RIAs may be limited in their usefulness for helping decision makers and the public understand these important effects.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal regulations, especially those addressing health, safety, and the environment, can generate hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits and costs to society annually. Various statutes, executive orders, and OMB guidance direct federal agencies to analyze the benefits and costs of proposed regulations. These analyses—known as RIAs—can also provide affected entities, agencies, Congress, and the public with important information about the potential effects of new regulations.

According to OMB, EPA regulations account for the majority of the estimated benefits and costs of major federal regulations. GAO was asked to review EPA’s RIAs for recent regulations. This report examines how EPA has used RIAs during the rulemaking process and the extent to which EPA adhered to OMB guidance on selected elements of RIAs for recent rules. GAO reviewed RIAs from a nonprobability sample of seven recent air, water, and other environmental regulations, assessed them against relevant OMB guidance, and interviewed agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that EPA improve adherence to OMB guidance and enhance the usefulness of its RIAs, and that OMB clarify the application of guidance for estimating the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In commenting on a draft of this report, EPA stated that it generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations. On behalf of OMB, in oral comments OMB staff said that they neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations but saw some merit in them.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gomez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Green roofs can reduce urban heat island effect

Read the full story at EnvironmmentalResearchWeb.

Several cities in the US are encouraging the use of green or cool roofs on buildings in an attempt to reduce the urban heat island effect. But assessing the effectiveness of this policy has been challenging. Most models look at the effect of a green or cool roof on one building but up-scaling this to a city or metropolitan area is difficult due to different urban landscapes and their effect on atmosphere exchanges.

Now researchers from Princeton University in the US have developed a new urban canopy model (UCM) that they claim is ideal for city-scale investigations into the mitigation of urban heat island effects. Dan Li and his colleagues tested their model on the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area during a four-day heatwave and found that a reduction of surface temperature of 1 °C could be achieved if 30% of all roofs in the area were green or cool roofs.

2014 National Climate Assessment

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has released the 2014 National Climate Assessment. The report provides an in-depth look at climate change impacts on the U.S. It details the multitude of ways climate change is already affecting and will increasingly affect the lives of Americans. Downloads of the report are available here. The download section includes broadcast quality graphics.

Fiscal Policy to Address Energy’s Environmental Impacts

Read the full story at IMF Survey.

  • Countries should reflect health, environmental costs of fuel use in energy prices
  • Setting appropriate charges on energy use could allow other taxes to be cut
  • Reforms can be initiated by finance ministers, need not await global action

Copper foam turns CO2 into useful chemicals

Read the full story from Brown University.

A catalyst made from a foamy form of copper has vastly different electrochemical properties from catalysts made with smooth copper in reactions involving carbon dioxide, a new study shows. The research, by scientists in Brown University’s Center for the Capture and Conversion of CO2, suggests that copper foams could provide a new way of converting excess CO2 into useful industrial chemicals.

The research is published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

Cigarette butts offer energy storage solution

Read the full story from the Institute of Physics.

A group of scientists from South Korea have converted cigarette butts into a high-performing material that could be integrated into computers, handheld devices, electrical vehicles and wind turbines to store energy…

This paper can be downloaded from http://iopscience.iop.org/0957-4484/25/34/345601/

Better Together: Regional Capacity Building for National Disaster Risk Management

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When a disaster strikes, national disaster management organizations (NDMOs) are called to respond quickly and effectively, usually in collaboration with local governmental authorities. These are the governmental agencies that are on the front lines of response and increasingly on the front lines of efforts to reduce the risk of disasters. For many years, international humanitarian organizations and bilateral aid donors have worked to strengthen the capacity of NDMOs. But, in spite of a growing literature on the role of regional organizations in disaster risk management, there have been few efforts to assess the role of regional organizations in building the capacity of NDMOs.

The Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, with the support of the Australian Civil-Military Centre, is currently undertaking field-based research on the role of three regional organizations – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the Pacific Islands Forum/South Pacific Community – in building capacity of national disaster management organizations. This initiative builds on our 2013 study, In the Neighborhood: The Role of Regional Organizations in Disaster Risk Management,  which provided a global overview of the expanding involvement of regional organizations with a particular emphasis on regional actors in the Pacific and the Caribbean. The study identified some of the particular strengths of regional approaches to disasters. For example, in the Pacific region, regional organizations were found to have clear comparative advantages including: “political convening power through strong links with the region’s leaders; key coordinating roles at the regional level; information management and dissemination through portals, provision of education, training and applied research; faith-based perspectives and actions in disaster risk management; representatives of, and advocates for, vulnerable groups (e.g. women, disabled, youth); and their extensive and broad regional experience.” Because of their close ties with member governments in the region, their activities may be viewed as more culturally and politically appropriate than those of international organizations.

While regional actors play important roles, it is the state itself that bears primary responsibility for preparing for and responding to disasters occurring in the area under its jurisdiction through its national disaster management organization. Though regional mechanisms may provide an important coordinating function and can effectively mobilize a regional response to a disaster (e.g. the case of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in response to Cyclone Nargis), perhaps the most important role they play is to increase the capacity of key national institutions.

The 2013 research found that about half of the regional organizations surveyed were active in the areas of capacity building, research, and technical cooperation. For some organizations, such as the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, training is an important part of the disaster management framework. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s core institution, the SAARC Disaster Management Centre, seems to be mainly focused on research and training activities. In the Pacific, several organizations involved in the design and delivery of emergency management training have formed the Pacific Emergency Management Training Advisory Group. In many cases, regional organizations cooperate with international actors in research and training and serve as important conveners for regional training activities and/or research projects. As many regional organizations engage in collecting information, they are also important resource centers not only for governments in the region but also for practitioners and academic researchers.

This short review, based on desk research, surveys literature on the work of regional organizations and NDMOs in disaster risk management and draws out some of the themes that may be useful for further examination of the relationship between regional bodies and national organizations in disaster risk management.

Mississippi River Water Quality and Interstate Collaboration: Summary of a Workshop

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Summary of a Workshop on Mississippi River Water Quality Science and Interstate Collaboration summarizes presentations and discussions of Mississippi River and basin water quality management, monitoring, and evaluation programs that took place at a workshop that was held in St. Louis on November 18-19, 2013. The workshop examined a wide array of challenges and progress in water quality monitoring and evaluation in states along the Mississippi River corridor, and provided a forum for experts from U.S. federal agencies, the Mississippi River states, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to share and compare monitoring and evaluation experiences from their respective organizations.