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Thriving Environment

Addressing Climate Challenges with Locally-led Solutions

Quantifying the Health Benefits of Climate Actions in New York

It’s one of the most ambitious climate measures in the United States. A 2019 New York State law requires carbon neutrality and net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. But the law and the initial plan to implement it had a problem: New York didn’t have a complete understanding of the benefits of implementing the law, and the costs of cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions initially appeared to outweigh the direct carbon benefits.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), together with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, academics, industry, and others on the state’s Climate Action Council, were developing a path forward to implement the law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. NYSERDA called in Abt to see if we had a different take. We did. We found that when you look at the picture more comprehensively, the full benefits—including the public health and air quality benefits—dwarfed the costs. Our analysis enabled the Climate Action Council’s approval in 2022 of the plan, paving the way for funding and implementing it.

Building on our extensive work translating climate plans into health benefits, we quickly showed tangible and significant public health value of New York’s proposed emissions reductions. Slashing CO2 emissions also reduces emissions of many other pollutants: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds. The changes then improve air quality, resulting in significantly improved health outcomes. Thousands fewer people will lose days of work. Thousands fewer will need to go to hospital emergency rooms. Thousands fewer will get admitted. And tens of thousands fewer will die prematurely. We also modeled other benefits, such as health benefits from improved indoor air quality due to energy efficiency programs.

We used our Climate HealthCounts™ framework to model the avoided health outcomes and the dollar value of the benefits from the air pollution emission reductions in all 62 New York counties and in neighboring states. This framework relies on COBRA (Co-Benefits Risk Assessment), a health impacts screening and mapping tool Abt created for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The bottom line: up to $170 billion in health benefits between now and 2050, more than enough to offset the $55 billion costs of emission reductions. The benefits include $40 billion in health and environmental benefits of increased active transportation (walking and biking) and $9 billion in benefits from reduced emissions from residential energy efficiency programs.

New Yorkers will benefit, and low- and middle-income communities will be a priority. Benefits of reduced fossil fuel combustion will be higher in urban areas due to higher emissions and a larger impacted population. Benefits of reduced wood combustion will be higher in upstate areas. And the annual benefits will grow over time as pollution rates decrease.

That’s not the end of the story. Reduced air pollution will help neighboring states, too. The plan could serve as a model for other states to follow to mitigate and adapt to climate change risks and protect disadvantaged communities. They can use Abt’s Climate HealthCounts™ framework to evaluate their health benefits. Abt’s evidence led to action that will lower greenhouse gas emissions in New York, thus contributing to curbing global warming.

LEARN MORE: New York’s Bold Climate Plan Approved After Abt Analysis | Climate HealthCounts™
PROJECT: Air Quality and Health Effects of New York State Decarbonization Pathways
CLIENT: New York State Energy Research and Development Authority

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Mitigating Methane Emissions with Scalable Solutions Around the World

Methane is a potent, short-lived greenhouse gas that’s responsible for almost half of the current observed rise in global temperatures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that methane accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It stays in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide (CO2) but has about 85 times the warming impact. Methane is also linked to harmful ground-level ozone formation. Because of methane’s exceptional warming potential and short life span compared with CO2, big reductions would have a rapid and large effect on climate change.

Abt has provided more than a decade of methane support to the EPA, a lead partner in the Global Methane Initiative (GMI). We provide a range of tools, measurement methodologies, feasibility and cost-benefit analyses, and technical assistance to guide methane mitigation efforts around the world. The Global Methane Pledge, signed by over 150 countries since 2021, established ambitious worldwide methane reduction goals. The pledge also reflects a mounting global recognition of the importance of including methane mitigation solutions in holistic climate action strategies.

In India, a GMI member since 2004, Abt is working with Indian partners to reduce methane emissions, as well as capture and use them productively. Our EPA-funded approach, on behalf of the GMI, tackles two of India’s largest methane emission sources: livestock manure and solid waste.

Using Biogas for Cold Storage in Rural Areas of India

One practical option to address methane focuses on capturing the gas produced by decomposing livestock manure and turning it into clean energy, like biogas. This is accomplished in systems, known as digesters, where anaerobic microorganisms break down the organic material in an enclosed structure. The resulting biogas could then become an energy source to power cold storage or refrigeration for farmers, instead of getting released to the atmosphere. This process produces co-benefits by meeting farmers’ energy needs and reducing climate impacts from methane emissions.

In Mahasashtra, India, we applied several tools and resources Abt developed for the EPA under GMI to conduct a feasibility analysis for the creation of a biogas facility to power a cold storage system. The Anaerobic Digestion Screening Tool assesses how much biogas an amount of manure or food waste could generate. The OrganEcs tool looks at the costs of organic waste management program activities.

Our analysis showed the feasibility and potential benefits of the proposed facility. A pilot biogas project in Maharashtra could cut an estimated 79 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions and 83 percent of annual methane emissions from the baseline. Capturing the livestock manure and using it to generate biogas could provide an important cold storage solution for rural villages where electricity is either unavailable or unreliable. That would reduce crop waste and loss and help reduce food insecurity. The facility would benefit farmers by providing flexibility for decisions on the timing and quantity of their product sales in the market. Resulting higher profits would then help farmers pay for the maintenance of the cold storage systems.

It’s a replicable solution that could scale elsewhere in India and beyond.

Implementing Existing Policies for Source Separation of Municipal Solid Waste in India

Another major source of methane emissions in India is solid waste, which emits methane when organic wastes—from food scraps, wood, or paper—decompose. A country of 1.4 billion people, India handles a vast amount of municipal solid waste and is actively expanding its national solid waste and circular economy practices. The government recently passed a law to guide the handling of solid waste. Regulations call for separation of waste into biodegradable (wet), non-biodegradable (dry), and hazardous (can’t be reused or recycled). Restaurants, hotels, and hospitals, and other industries that generate the majority of local waste are supposed to treat what they can on site through methods such as composting. They pay a licensed vendor to cart away and treat the rest. 

Many cities in India are working to improve solid waste management to increase compliance with these laws. East Delhi is one of them. The East Delhi Municipal Corporationsupporting a geographic area of nearly 140 square kilometers and a population of nearly 182 million people—has an additional set of bylaws that build off the national rules. The focus is on organic waste, food waste, and other green waste. 

To support these source separation efforts in East Delhi, Abt worked with Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) to develop solutions that would strengthen compliance with national and municipal rules. After bringing together stakeholders to explore the issues, we developed a training course on source separation regulations that TERI delivered to 86 waste generators and vendors. 

Like the capture of methane from manure, this intervention is replicable elsewhere, too. We can tailor the material on national rules and add any variations to meet local needs. Taking local conditions, culture, and stakeholder needs into account is the best way to make progress in curbing emissions of this dangerous, climate-changing gas.   

LEARN MORE: Societal Benefits of Methane Mitigation | Spotlight On: Methane
PROJECT: Technical and Capacity Building Support for the Global Methane Initiative
CLIENT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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Protecting Indigenous Environments in the U.S. through Climate Resilience

For more than two decades, the largest wildfires in New Mexico have threatened the Pueblo de San Ildefonso. Wildfires pose risks to many elements of Pueblo life: its traditions, its spiritual values, and the health of its members. “Natural and cultural resources were lost,” recalls Raymond Martinez, Director of the Department of Environmental & Cultural Preservation and Tribal Council Representative, of one of the recent large fires.

The wildfires came on top of longstanding concerns about air and water contamination stemming from neighboring Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons development took place during the WWII Manhattan Project, and hazardous wastes were released to the local environment. The Pueblo is one of many Tribal Nations actively seeking ways to minimize the combined effects of climate and contaminants from wide-ranging resource extraction and industrial practices within their lands.

2022 could be the year things started to turn around. Tribal Nations got some good news when the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) passed late in 2021. They suddenly would have access to $13 billion in direct investments and additional billions in competitive grant opportunities for climate and environmental projects (totaling around $130 billion). This was followed in short order by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which poured another $89 billion into grants with Tribal eligibility.

Of course, that posed another set of problems. To access funding, Tribal Nations had to navigate the bewildering world of grant money in the 1,000-page BIL: knowing what was available, when, and for which activities and how to submit often complex grant proposals to agencies to get the money. Ironically, this large influx of funds, being administered in large part through a competitive grant system, has created an environmental justice issue. Many Tribal Nations don’t have the resources to navigate the grant application process.

Abt has worked with the Pueblo and other Tribal Nations for a decade on environmental studies, tribal human health risk assessments, restoration planning, and climate resiliency. Investing our own time to equalize the playing field for Tribal Nations, Abt created a toolkit to track opportunities and eligibility for the BIL. Our guide listed more than 50 grant opportunities by category to help Tribes quickly determine which opportunities have Tribal eligibility, when to expect the opportunities, and their approximate value.

We disseminate information on new opportunities—descriptions and due dates—to Tribal Nations and other stakeholders in a newsletter once or twice a month, which also now includes information on IRA dollars. We offered training at the Tribal Lands and Environment Forum, a national Tribal conference, and created an online site that acts as a clearinghouse of grant information. It’s available to Tribal Nations, as well as Environmental Protection Agency staff, and local state government agency staff.

Our teams work closely with Tribal applicants in shaping proposals to ensure the request reflects their needs and priorities, and we help ensure compliance with agency requirements. In the past year, we helped shepherd six grant applicants through the application cycle. Selected Tribal Nations got $2.9 million for a variety of projects. They ranged from climate adaptation and wildfire mitigation and resilience plans to watershed action and emergency evacuation plans. When needed, we also help with implementation of these awards, such as writing climate adaptation plans or wildfire mitigation plans.

Take the Pueblo de San Ildefonso, for which we had helped write a climate adaptation and resilience plan. Starting with Tribal input gathered through community workshops, the Pueblo identified its priorities on what to preserve and protect—often governed by the lands, plants, and wildlife that are both sacred and environmentally important. Participants included elders, youth, and resource managers. The workshops produced a community vision that reflects the voices of those impacted. Abt provided environmental science input: What’s the climate risk? How severe are the consequences for the community?

With this plan in hand, the community had a set of prioritized actions it wanted to take to protect their environment and health. And with the BIL and IRA, resources were now available to support them. Abt was ready to help. We collaborated with Martinez to write multiple grant proposals, marrying his substantive knowledge about Tribal priorities with our grant writing and technical insights. “Your commitment and passion for your work really helps us tackle these tough topics that are at our Pueblo’s doorstep,” he told our team.

The integration of Tribal knowledge about needs and context and Abt’s expertise in environmental science and government compliance is critical. The result in 2022: $2 million in grants to implement wildfire and contaminants air quality monitoring and improve resilience to drought at sacred springs within Pueblo.

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Empowering Communities in the U.S. with Insights About Environmental Contaminants

They’re everywhere. And they have been associated with immune system harm, increased cholesterol levels, and increased cancer risk. “They” are PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of man-made chemicals found in everything from cosmetics, food packaging, clothing, firefighting foams, and non-stick frying pans. There’s a reason they’re called the forever chemicals. Many PFAS can stay in your body for years because many don’t easily degrade. They can persist in the environment for decades, resulting in ongoing exposure to humans and wildlife from a variety of sources, including drinking water, food, air, dust, and soil.

With growing publicity about PFAS and their dangers, there’s intense concern about people’s exposure to PFAS, particularly from contaminated drinking water. Communities want to know about PFAS in their drinking water and residents exposed to contaminated water want their blood tested. But it’s difficult to test everyone. So we built on Abt’s extensive work on PFAS and partnered with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to develop an online tool to estimate personal exposure to four PFAS (those with the most data), with no blood sample required. This will give people who are concerned about their own exposure more information that they can use to take action to address their potential risk.

To use the online tool, released in November 2022, users enter their water PFAS concentration levels. Public utilities, state agencies, or testing results for private wells are common data sources for these levels. Some users can find water system sampling data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), which is included in the tool. Users then input their age, sex, weight, use of bottled and filtered water, and other factors like previous births and breastfeeding history. The tool then estimates the levels of PFAS in the person’s blood on that day and compares it with average levels in the U.S. population.

To create the underlying model, Abt analyzed data from 21 published studies that reported drinking water measurements and corresponding concentrations of the four PFAS in human blood. Our team used advanced methods to calibrate and test the model and account for individual’s possible exposures.

We tested the model against actual blood samples and found the predictive model accurate. Although the tool is not intended to predict the risk of negative health effects, its core function of predicting blood levels based on an individual’s exposure represents a significant advance in understanding personal PFAS risks and is a useful community resource. With estimates in hand, concerned people can pursue getting their blood tested, work to determine the sources of their PFAS exposure, and try to minimize them.

The PFAS blood estimation tool was accessed nearly 2,600 times in the first six months following its release in late 2022.

The PFAS Blood Level Estimation Tool addresses a critical community need, empowering individuals to learn more about their PFAS exposures. The team from Abt have been great partners in this effort, providing the needed technical expertise and project management skills.

          - Rachel Rogers, MA, PhD, senior environmental health scientist, CDC/ATSDR

The tool is just the latest facet of Abt’s PFAS work. Abt also helped EPA’s Office of Water, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, create regulations for PFAS. We worked on EPA’s recently proposed health protective standard for PFAS in drinking water and provided technical support for the benefit-cost and environmental justice analysis for the proposed rule options to decrease the amount of PFAS in public drinking water. We have studied methods and their costs to remove PFAS from drinking water. Abt also samples water, fish, and soil to determine contamination levels and potential adverse outcomes for wildlife and habitats.

All of this work addresses one of the most widespread environmental challenges the global community faces. Abt is helping empower people to learn about their health risks and enable communities to reduce them.

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