Tessum wins CAREER award to study decarbonization strategies


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Photo of Chris Tessum
Chris Tessum

Assistant Professor Christopher Tessum has won a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to study the air quality and environmental equity implications of different decarbonization strategies.

“The U.S. and other nations are at the beginning of a major technological shift from a fossil fuel-based economy to one driven by non-climate-forcing energy generation,” Tessum said. “The speed and success of this technology shift, or ‘decarbonization,’ depend in part upon whether it is perceived to be implemented equitably with benefits that accrue broadly across society.”

A major way that energy generation intersects with equity is through ambient air pollution, Tessum said. Ambient air pollution is one of the largest causes of death in the US and globally, with health burdens that are distributed inequitably on both regional and international scales.

Minimal research has been conducted into the air quality and environmental equity implications of different decarbonization strategies. Furthermore, current integrated assessment models, which are used to develop decarbonization strategies, have minimal support for air quality assessment and are not well-suited to quantify environmental inequity. Tessum’s project will develop a new modeling framework for integrated assessment of climate, air quality and environmental equity impacts of policy scenarios, and apply the framework in the analysis and evaluation of climate policy.

The goal of the research is greatly improved understanding of the co-benefits and dis-benefits of decarbonization policy scenarios, especially as related to environmental equity, both within the U.S. and internationally. It also targets improved understanding of effective methods for educating the general public on climate science and policy. 

The open-source computational tools to be created aim to facilitate the calculation of air quality co-benefits and related equity by policymakers, sustainability scientists and others. This goal is to result in a stronger technical grounding for decarbonization policy. In addition, because the perception of equity is critical to successful decarbonization, the identification of strategies that mitigate environmental inequity – and the development of educational tools to broadly communicate the benefits of those policies – will contribute to the fight against climate change overall.

CAREER awards, administered under the Faculty Early Career Development Program, are the NSF’s most prestigious form of support and recognition for junior faculty who “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

Tessum joined the CEE department in January 2020. His research focuses on modeling air pollution and its health impacts, quantifying inequities in the distribution of those impacts, and proposing and testing solutions. He studies the relationships between emissions, the human activities that cause them, and the resulting health impacts, and he develops modeling capabilities to enable these types of analyses.

Globe illustration credit: istockphoto.com/Artis777

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This story was published January 29, 2024.