Overview of the SEI Initiative on Low Emission Development Pathways

National leaders increasingly recognize the need to shift to low-emission economic pathways, both to address the urgent threat of climate change, and to ensure that development is sustainable. At the same time, many countries have made it a priority to combat air pollution, particularly in urban areas.

Synergies between both goals have long been recognized, but in practice, there has been little integration. The SEI Initiative on Low Emission Development Pathways (LED-P) aims to help bridge this gap by providing national-scale decision-makers with the tools and knowledge they need to consider climate and air quality measures together, and thus identify the low-emissions development opportunities that will yield the greatest benefits for their countries.

Many low-carbon strategies offer development benefits that go beyond climate change mitigation, including substantial reductions in air pollution – for example, when coal power is replaced by solar or wind power. There is also growing interest in combatting short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) – including methane, black carbon, tropospheric ozone and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that can have an outsize impact on climate change in the near term.

Yet decision-makers, particularly in developing countries, lack crucial data on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, trends, and the costs and benefits of different policy options. This makes it hard to identify and prioritize measures, or to make the case for action.

To help address this, the SEI Initiative will build capacity by creating an integrated framework to examine climate change (including long- and near-term mitigation) and air pollution together, along with easy-to-use planning and analytical tools. We will support these tools with training and information on the latest research and insights on key issues, and also work to synthesize that information and gather available data to support decision-making. In addition, we will undertake new research to fill knowledge gaps and help answer pressing questions that arise in policy and planning discussions.

Smog hangs over Mexico City

Smog hangs over Mexico City, where planners are finding synergies between reducing GHGs and improving air quality. Photo: Flickr / Sanpani

A new perspective

Efforts have been made in recent years to bring climate and air quality experts and policy-makers together, yet much more needs to be done. Too often policy development occurs in silos, so climate decision-makers pay little attention to air quality issues, and vice-versa. This results in missed opportunities to achieve gains in both realms at once.

In many countries, CO2 emission reduction is understandably not the highest priority, so being able to improve air quality through mitigation actions could greatly improve their political viability. Some air quality measures can also exacerbate the CO2 problem, and it is important to identify and avoid those risks. Countries need robust evidence and expertise to understand the potential trade-offs and synergies between different policies in order to develop more coherent and effective policies.

The initiative will draw on SEI’s expertise in model development and application, emission estimation and scenario-building, impacts and benefits estimation covering climate change, human health and ecosystem impacts, valuation of impacts, costs of measures, and pathways to the successful implementation of the measures that can reduce the climate and air quality impacts.

A simplified view of SEI’s integrated approach.

Building on SEI and CCAC assets

SEI’s Long-range Energy Alternatives Planning (LEAP) system, used by thousands of planners, analysts and researchers worldwide, is already the go-to tool for countries undertaking integrated climate mitigation planning, especially in the developing world, and for creating Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS).

The initiative will also build on work done by SEI for the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC). We are extending LEAP’s capabilities by linking it to a new Benefits Calculator that, drawing on the latest science, estimates the range of benefits achievable through different strategies, taking both climate and air pollution into account. The integrated tool will help policy-makers and sustainability practitioners chart low-emissions development strategies that maximize benefits in line with national priorities, and understand all options and trade-offs.

The tools and knowledge will feed directly into capacity-building activities that are already planned and financed, including SLCP strategy development in eight countries – Mexico, Colombia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco and Peru – under the CCAC national planning initiative. Additional countries are expected to join this effort in the coming year.

SEI will also bring these new capabilities to our ongoing LEAP capacity-building and policy engagement activities. The goal is to ensure local ownership of the tools, so the results that inform decision-making in each country are produced (or co-produced) by analysts in those countries, building trust and facilitating uptake. We will further disseminate this knowledge through articles in peer-reviewed journals, presentations at academic and policy-oriented conferences and meetings, and an array of web-based and print materials.

Short-lived climate pollutants

Chimney with smoke

Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) are a group of pollutants that contribute to climate change by warming the atmosphere in the near-term, and to degraded air quality, with associated impacts on human health and vegetation. SLCPs include Black Carbon, which is a component of particulate matter, tropospheric ozone, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons. The multiple impacts of SLCPs means that actions that can reduce SLCPs in the atmosphere can potentially result in multiple benefits, from reducing near term temperature increases, to reducing negative health effects associated with air pollution exposure, to increasing yields of crops like wheat, rice, maize and soybean.

Research that SEI has contributed to in this area focusses on:

  1. identifying the co-benefits that could result from reducing SLCPs
  2. investigating the measures and policies that could be implemented to achieve these reductions, and
  3. communicating these results to provide policy makers and implementers with a better understanding of the most important actions they can take to reduce SLCPs, and the likely benefits that these actions will derive.

Health impacts

People on motorcycles wearing masks

Air pollution, such as particulate matter and ozone, when breathed in can penetrate deep into the lungs and result in negative effects on human health. Quantifying the effects of air pollution on human health is important to allow the air pollution risk factor to be placed in the context of all other risk factors that affect human health. In addition, estimating changes in the air pollution health burden from taking specific actions to reduce air pollution emissions can provide policy makers with key information regarding the effectiveness of implementing a particular policy. SEI has contributed to research which has focussed on quantifying the current effects of air pollution on a broader range of health outcomes, for example estimating the global impact of maternal particulate matter exposure on the frequency of preterm birth, and quantifying future changes in air pollution health impacts from emission reduction strategies.

Impacts to vegetation

Short-lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) can influence vegetation through a number of different mechanisms of which the most important are likely to be:

  1.  the pytotoxic effect of ozone on growth, biomass and yield;
  2. aerosol changes to the quantity and quality of incoming solar radiation that will affect photosynthesis and consequent growth, biomass and yield; and
  3. through changes in regional climate e.g. aerosol affecting precipitation patterns, which will affect plant productivity.

SEI research over the past 20 years has mostly focussed on assessing the deposition and damage resulting from ozone to vegetation (crops, forests and grasslands). This research has included the development and application of a model called DO3SE, that is used to estimate both stomatal and non-stomatal deposition of ozone to vegetated surfaces. This model has been used to develop ozone ‘critical levels’ for European crop and tree species, essentially air quality guidelines for vegetation. Application of the DO3SE model within atmospheric chemistry transport models allows both ozone deposition and the exceedance of critical levels, and hence likely risk to vegetation from ozone, to be assessed.

In addition, SEI has contributed to experimental research that has estimated the damage from ozone to a variety of crops in different settings, including Asia and Africa. These studies improve the ability to assess the impact of ozone on a wider range of vegetation types, and in those areas where highest ozone concentrations are experienced. The DO3SE model is now being developed to estimate the effect of a range of environmental conditions/stresses including ozone, aerosol, nitrogen availability and soil water stress.