Articles | Volume 12, issue 12
Research article
22 Jun 2012
Research article |  | 22 Jun 2012

Projections of mid-century summer air-quality for North America: effects of changes in climate and precursor emissions

J. Kelly, P. A. Makar, and D. A. Plummer

Abstract. Ten year simulations of North American current and future air-quality were carried out using a regional air-quality model driven by a regional climate model, in turn driven by a general circulation model. Three separate summer scenarios were performed: a scenario representing the years 1997 to 2006, and two SRES A2 climate scenarios for the years 2041 to 2050. The first future climate scenario makes use of 2002 anthropogenic precursor emissions, and the second applied emissions scaling factors derived from the IPCC Representative Concentration Pathway 6 (RCP 6) scenario to estimate emissions for 2050 from existing 2020 projections. Ten-year averages of ozone and PM2.5 at North American monitoring network stations were used to evaluate the model's current chemical climatology. The model was found to have a similar performance for ozone as when driven by an operational weather forecast model. The PM2.5 predictions had larger negative biases, likely resulting from the absence of rainwater evaporation, and from sub-regional negative biases in the surface temperature fields, in the version of the climate model used here.

The differences between the two future climate simulations and the current climate simulation were used to predict the changes to air-quality that might be expected in a future warmer climate, if anthropogenic precursor emissions remain constant at their current levels, versus if the RCP 6 emissions controls were adopted. Metrics of concentration, human health, and ecosystem damage were compared for the simulations. The scenario with future climate and current anthropogenic emissions resulted in worse air-quality than for current conditions – that is, the effect of climate-change alone, all other factors being similar, would be a worsening of air-quality. These effects are spatially inhomogeneous, with the magnitude and sign of the changes varying with region. The scenario with future climate and RCP 6 emissions for 2050 resulted in an improved air-quality, with decreases in key pollutant concentrations, in acute human mortality associated with air-pollution, and in sulphur and ozone deposition to the ecosystem. The positive outcomes of the RCP 6 emissions reductions were found to be of greater magnitude than the negative outcomes of climate change alone. The RCP 6 scenario however resulted in an increase in the deposition of nitrogen, as a result of increased ammonia emissions expected in that scenario, compared to current ammonia emissions levels.

The results of the study raise the possibility that simultaneous reductions of greenhouse gases and air pollution precursors may further reduce air pollution levels, with the added benefits of an immediate reduction in the impacts of air pollution on human and ecosystem health. Further scenarios to investigate this possibility are therefore recommended.

Final-revised paper