What inspires environmental action?

This is one in a series of stories about a clean air symposium held at the University of Utah on Oct. 3, 2019. The article was written by University of Utah Communications and published in @theu November 8, 2019.

There’s nothing like a crisis to motivate people to change their behaviors.

But when it comes to improving Utah’s air quality and slowing down climate change, action can be taken now to protect the state’s public health, economy and quality of life, according to a panel of University of Utah professors speaking on environmental change.

The panel was one of several presented at the symposium “The Air We Breathe: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Air Quality.” The symposium took place Oct. 3, 2019, at the U.

Utah has serious air quality problems that “many people try to ignore on a day-to-day basis,” says Tabitha Benney, assistant professor of political science. She said behavioral studies show that a crisis can be “very useful in bringing about environmental change…. Do we want to get to that point? Hopefully, we won’t have to before we make decisions that help us in the long run.”

She is studying what would motivate Utahns to make changes to improve air quality by surveying almost 1,000 people across the state. The goal is to better understand perceptions and misperceptions about air quality, to explain behaviors Utahns take or don’t take to reduce air pollution, to motivate environmental actions and spur policy.

Benney has hypothesized that political orientation, socioeconomic background, religiosity and other factors affect Utahns’ environmental values and beliefs. Preliminary results show that roughly one-third of respondents believe air pollution in Utah isn’t caused by human behavior. And about half of the respondents were unsure if the government should implement policies to solve environmental problems.

While individual actions are important, government policy is seen as key to improving Utah’s air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute is studying science-based solutions to both those problems at the request of the Utah Legislature.

Logan Mitchell, U research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and a member of the institute’s technical team, said the three drivers of air pollution emissions are electricity production, vehicles and buildings. The community should be focused on implementing policies in those three areas, including accelerating the transition to renewable energy and building homes and offices that run on electricity instead of natural gas, he said.

Mitchell said the advisory panel’s final recommendations are due Dec. 13. For individuals who want to take action, he said: “The most important thing as a citizen is to look at those things and let your legislator know you care … and that you’d like to see urgent action that will engender systemic change.”

Panelist Cheryl Pirozzi, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of internal medicine, said the health effects of air pollution would worsen as the temperature climbs due to an increase in wildfires and because warmer temperatures lead to more ground-level ozone. These effects should factor into the cost-benefit analysis of changing policies. She and other U researchers have found that during typical inversions, older adults are about 2.5 times more likely to have pneumonia and three times more likely to die in the hospital with pneumonia.

Still, it was the economic figure in her study that made an impact. The study estimated that reducing air pollution to healthy levels would save more than $800,000 in direct medical costs. The dollar amount “caught more attention than the health outcomes,” she said.

Stephen Bannister, associate professor (lecturer) of economics, agreed that economics is a good motivator for spurring change. “The one incentive that really changes everybody’s behavior is large price differentials,” he said, adding that there needs to be a massive decrease in the cost of clean energy technologies to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Selling the public—and the auto and petroleum sector—on the money to be made by moving to clean energy would be a good motivator, according to the panel. Benney said her survey has shown that Utahns, regardless of their age or political party, are more willing to take environmental action when they know one key element: the positive economic benefits of change.

Panelists: Stephen Bannister, associate professor (lecturer), economics and director of the MIAGE Program, College of Social and Behavioral Science; Tabitha Benney, assistant professor, political science, College of Social and Behavioral Science; Logan Mitchell, research assistant professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, College of Mines and Earth Sciences; Cheryl Pirozzi, assistant professor (clinical), Division of Pulmonary Medicine, University of Utah School of Medicine.

Moderator: Brenda Bowen, associate professor, Department of Geology & Geophysics, College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center.

 

Changing Behavior to Improve the Air

This article by University of Utah Communications was featured in @theu on November 19, 2019.

Sometimes even well-meaning people contribute to air pollution (exhibit A: the majority of attendees at the University of Utah’s “The Air We Breathe” symposium arrived by car). So how do you inspire people to change?

Take a look at the way obesity rates have risen even though people know that diet and exercise help, said Robin Marcus, and “we’re quite naïve to think if you just give people knowledge it will change their behaviors.” Marcus, professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training and chief wellness officer at the University of Utah, was part of the symposium’s Environmental Health Literacy panel, moderated by Beth Krensky, U professor of art education.

Of the people who commute to the U, 50% live within eight miles of the campus, she said, yet a very small percent use mass transit. “We’re bringing people to this campus every day contributing to the problem.” As the U’s wellness officer, Marcus said her staff is looking at whether incentives work to bring about change. “Do we incentivize people to not buy a parking pass? Or pay people $2 a day to not drive to campus?”

“We need experts on our campus who are implementation scientists,” she added.

“There’s a big gap between attitude change and behavioral change,” said Danielle Endres, professor in the U’s Department of Communication. Technology alone won’t solve the problem either, she said.

Some of the things Endres wonders about: “How can our decisions about air quality be as democratic and just as possible? How can we foster broad public participation in air quality decision-making?” She urged conference attendees to remember that “there are many communities outside of academia that have vast stores of expertise.”

One way to change hearts and minds might be to let people see more clearly how bad the air is, and how undemocratically it’s spread across the Salt Lake Valley. That can include providing low-cost PM2.5 sensors to individuals and public schools, said Kerry Kelly, assistant professor in the U’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

“We need dense measurements” that complement existing, sparser measurements supplied by the state, she said. These “community-engaged measurements” can also be a way to bolster STEM education, she added. In one experiment, young students were taught to build their own pollution sensors out of Legos, LED lights, photo detectors and computer fans as a low-cost hands-on way to measure light scattering.

Not everybody absorbs information identically, noted Whitney Tassie, senior curator at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “Not everybody is inspired by graphs in the same way.” One solution: Art that is visceral—for example, adding smog to whipped egg whites, “so you can taste it.” Tassie is in the research and development phase of a six-month exhibit that will open in January 2021 that she hopes will bring air and air pollution to life.

HUMANS OF THE U: NAIMA DAHIR

Originally post on @theU on March 9, 2019.

“I grew up in a family that never discussed environmental issues or sustainability. That was not something known to us. My parents have been through a lot—war and things like that—so sustainability and environmental justice hasn’t been a focus. We weren’t privileged enough to know about those issues or to have the resources or knowledge to know how our actions related to climate change.

When I first started college and learned about environmental racism, such as the water crisis in Flint, MI., I was taken aback at how these environmental injustices are happening in communities of color that don’t have the resources to fight back against things that are affecting them. It became personal to me as a person of color, who comes from a community that has a large refugee community with a low socioeconomic status.

I’m a big believer that we need to make sure we take care of our environment and our world. The earth has resources that are finite and can’t sustain us the way we have been using them.

When I found out the U offered free bus and TRAX passes I was excited. I use TRAX to get to and from school every day. I also use the bus sometimes as well when I need to get to places outside of campus. It’s easier than driving and I’m able to do homework, read and get things done.

But more important, I am reducing my carbon footprint and that was important to me. It makes me feel empowered just to be able to do something as easy as taking TRAX to help the planet. It’s the little things we do in our communities that really add up at the end of the day.”

— Naima Dahir, junior, International Studies and Environmental & Sustainability Studies

AIR QUALITY RESEARCH

Originally posted on @theU on February 11, 2019.

By Kate Whitbeck, University of Utah Sustainability Office

It should come as no surprise that the University of Utah is home to some of the world’s premier experts on air quality. As we settle deeper into the winter inversion season, researchers at the U renew their efforts to better understand who the big emitters are, who is being affected and how we can clear our air. It’s not just the folks in the atmospheric sciences who are studying air quality. We have professors in art, philosophy, geography, sociology and economics who are working to better understand the causes and identify comprehensive solutions.

Sara Grineski

Sara Grineski, professor of sociology and environmental studies, focuses on environmental health disparities, children’s health and environmental justice. She explores how social inequalities shape our exposure to air pollution as well as the health effects caused by air pollution.

The results of her research have led her to believe that “not everyone has the same opportunities to protect themselves in terms of where they live or work. It doesn’t matter if it is a red air quality day—landscapers (for example) have to be outside working. We can try our best to protect our family in our little bubble but the solution to the problem is we need to reduce emissions and make the air cleaner for everyone,” Grineski said. “We need to see solutions at a policy level. Air quality needs community solutions, state-level action and federal policy.”

 

Daniel Mendoza

Daniel Mendoza has reached similar conclusions. As a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, his work focuses on the impact of poor air quality on health, both for individuals and for the population as a whole. “While historically, studies have looked at very elevated pollutant levels, such as those found during inversions,” he said. “Our current research shows that even small increases in PM 2.5 or ozone are responsible for outcomes ranging from increased absences in schools to a greater number of hospitalizations due to pulmonary conditions.”

One of the simplest solutions lies with changing behaviors around transit.  “Within the metropolitan planning context, we have found that the use of transit as an alternative to single-passenger vehicle use can mitigate emissions in a meaningful way,” Mendoza said.

Frequently, people place the blame on industry, without acknowledging that “refineries are there because we demand the gasoline to drive our cars and diesel for our goods to be delivered. Personal accountability is a necessary component of solving this problem,” Mendoza said. The solution can be as simple as “not idling our cars, taking transit as often as possible and being more conservative with the temperature in our homes.”

Grineski and Mendoza are only two of the many researchers engaged in examining air quality at the U. The university’s Global Change and Sustainability Center hosts an inventory of U researchers, publications, presentations, media references and awards related to air quality. As the smog settles in our valley, and we know our researchers are working hard to do their part, we need to make conscious choices to reduce our own emissions and remind our elected officials of the importance of state and federal policy to make our air cleaner for everyone.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

HUMANS OF THE U: DEBOLINA BANERJEE

Originally posted on @theU on March 1, 2019.

“Having lived in India, Hong Kong and now Utah, public transportation has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve seen the difference infrastructure makes from country to country and the impacts it has on people’s travel behaviors. Coming from a highly dense megalopolis where the sheer number of people heightens traffic congestion so much so, it’s almost a relief to access public transportation. Utah’s a welcome change with its TRAX lines, protected bike lanes and other numerous public and active transit systems.

Coming from India, I cannot help but compare the poor driving conditions coupled with high fuel prices and other affordability issues, forces people to take the public transit. While here in the U.S. improved roadways, affordable car loans and low fuel prices encourage higher vehicle ownership and driving behaviors.

The two main reasons to take public transport in India are extreme traffic congestion and a huge percentage of daily workers who cannot afford their own vehicles. Public transport is a necessity not a choice. This high demand coupled with the government’s inability to supply cheap public transit also highlights the reality, the public transportation fleet needs upgrading and is not always an enjoyable ride. Whereas, in Utah, the bus and train fleet are modernized which guarantees a comfortable ride.

Being a user of public transit all my life, I see the numerous potentials here in Utah. What’s lacking here is the ‘necessity’ factor. People feel more in control of their schedule with driving. Ways to make mass transit more convenient could be; increasing the frequency of bus and TRAX, expanded routes to cover more neighborhoods, installing all-weather bus stop shelters and better integrating active transportation facilities with existing public transit, like bike racks at TRAX stops and building ‘floating’ bus stops.

While not my field of study in City and Metropolitan Planning, I know my colleagues are working on long-lasting solutions. They are thinking of unique ways to make the system so convenient that people want to ride a bus or train.

I’ve never owned a car. And I don’t think I’ll need to while I’m part of the U community. Thanks in large part to the TRAX and UTA benefit, my daily commute is taken care of.”

—Debolina Banerjee, doctoral student, Department of City and Metropolitan Planning and research assistant, Center for Ecological Planning + Design, LEED AP

Banerjee is just one member of the U whose commuting behavior is complex. Transportation mode choices depend on multiple factors, including weather, time of day, cost, proximity and convenience. Many commute trips involve more than one mode of transportation. Source: U. Office of Sustainability

HUMANS OF THE U: LISA MCMURTREY

Originally posted on @theU on Feb. 22, 2019.

“I started taking public transit around the time of the Olympics—so since 2002. It’s a 60-minute commute and then I have a five-minute walk to the Burn Center at University of Utah Hospital.

I care about the environment. I want to be a better steward of what we have been given. I started taking public transit because I wanted to do my part and save money on gasoline. I personally don’t like to drive. I enjoy being chauffeured and taking public transit can be relaxing and is cost effective. I don’t have to deal with traffic, inclement weather or other transportation difficulties.

I encourage people to use public transportation, knowing that it does take a certain mindset. If you can find a route that is fairly efficient and you’re using the time effectively, then it can work for anyone. I’m fortunate because it does work for me. I probably only drive to work two-to-three times a year. I don’t even have a parking pass.

I work sometimes on my commute, but in actuality, I use that time for self-care. I’m reading, listening to music, podcasts, a meditation app, taking a nap or just clearing my head during that time.

I think the type of work that I do requires self-care, but in general, I like to build in a balance of work and relaxation into my daily life. Using public transportation helps me achieve that balance.”

—Lisa McMurtrey, Clinical Nurse Coordinator, University of Utah Hospital Burn Outpatient Clinic

COMMIT TO BETTER AIR YEAR-ROUND

Originally posted on @theU on February 25, 2019.

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Sustainability Office

It’s the final week of the Clear the Air Challenge. As we approach the end of the competition, the University of Utah is a contender to take the top spot. That means you should log your trips now so we can triumph over both Fidelity Investments and UTA. If you walked to get lunch, log that walking trip. If you drove to a movie with a friend, log your carpool activity. If you worked from home on a snow day or brought lunch, enter a skipped trip. You can log trips all the way back to Feb. 1.

But in all seriousness, with cleaner air, we all win. The efforts of participants in the Clear the Air Challenge contribute to better air for all. Transportation choices do matter, particularly when considering the type of pollutants that collect here in the Salt Lake Valley: wintertime fine particulate matter and summer ozone. Our cars contribute to both.

We need cleaner air all year—not just in the month of February. Consider making alternative transportation part of your everyday life. Here are some ideas for all transportation methods:

Use your commute to stay in shape

Your daily commute can improve your health. Getting exercise by biking or walking can help to increase blood flow, release endorphins and reduce overall stress. Even logging 30 minutes of walking a day can help to improve mental health and energy. Join the STRAVA University of Utah Commuters club and challenge others to the longest ride, the biggest climb and more.

Make use of your UCard transit pass

Our UCards can be used to ride UTA buses, TRAX and FrontRunner. This generous benefit, managed by our Commuter Services department, is an incredible deal. Consider this: A monthly UTA pass costs $83.75 and that doesn’t even include access to FrontRunner. Use our transit access to commute to campus, go out on the town, or ride to Salt Lake’s sports venues, many of which are located within about half a mile of a TRAX line.

Ride Campus Shuttles

Our university has approximately 30 shuttle buses, 15 of which run on natural gas. According to Commuter Services, the campus shuttles help reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles driving around campus. These shuttles service thousands of members of the U community every week, so join them for the ride.

Drive smarter

Using our own vehicles can be convenient and there are some parts of our metro area that are public transit deserts. However, even those that need access to their vehicles can reduce their contribution to air pollution. Drivers can carpool, combine trips to reduce miles traveled and avoid idling while waiting in parking lots or at stoplights. Those looking to purchase a new car can also look into electric vehicles as a way to cut emissions.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

THE U’S IMPACT ON AIR QUALITY

Orginally posted on @theU on February 19, 2019.

By Myron Willson, Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer

The inversion season is upon us. This can be a time to point fingers at other polluters, but it should also be a time to recognize our own contributions to the murky haze and examine what steps we are taking to reduce emissions, including those emissions created by our actions at work and school.

So, what is our own university doing to reduce emissions? The university (health sciences and lower campus) is often likened to a small city with the total population of faculty, staff and students exceeding 60,000. This means that we have a fairly significant potential for creating emissions.

Fortunately, in addition to supporting faculty who are conducting research on various aspects of air quality and its impacts, the university is also proactively identifying areas for emissions reductions. In 2014, leadership authorized the first universitywide emissions review resulting in a report that provided recommendations for infrastructure and operational changes. Some areas identified:

  • Efficiency improvements and controls for large natural gas-powered boilers for building heat and hot water
  • Emergency diesel generator replacement
  • Phasing out dirty gas-powered landscaping equipment and replacing with electric options
  • Reducing and controlling chemicals and solvents used in laboratories, shops, etc.
  • Increasing sustainable commuting (including bicycles, public transit and car sharing)

As resources have allowed, many of these recommendations have already been implemented. Numerous changes have been driven by the dedicated staff in facilities’ Sustainability and Energy Management OfficePlanning Design and ConstructionCommuter Services, as well as the Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Office.  At this point, nearly 50 percent of the recommendations have been or are being addressed.

  • Many equipment upgrades have been completed at the central heating plant and operation has been optimized for efficient fuel use.
  • The landscaping team is investing in the electrification of equipment and has implemented a moratorium on gas-fired equipment on yellow and red AQ days.
  • The “Better-Buildings Challenge” has been fully funded and will result in a 20 percent reduction of energy use per square foot by 2020.
  • Based on feedback from the Sustainability Office, the Clear the Air Challenge has shifted from July to February to include students among other campus commuters.
  • A full-time active transportation manager position has been established along with funding for infrastructure changes to support non-vehicular transport.

These actions are netting results. Even as the campus has grown (both in numbers of students and building square footage) total emissions have nearly leveled out or decreased. Close to 50 percent of our faculty, staff and students come to campus each day in something other than a single-occupant vehicle (making us very competitive with other Pac-12 institutions according to the latest reports).

Recent building projects on campus, such as Gardner Commons, have been designed to produce minimal emissions as the systems for heating and cooling are electric. Almost no on-site emissions are created. In addition, as the university continues to increase its purchase of renewable electricity (geothermal and solar), emissions due to the operations of buildings like Gardner Commons will be nearly zero.

Going forward, new federal and state requirements for business and institutions related to air quality are likely to become more restrictive. University leadership has asked staff to review the 2015 Air Quality Task Force Report, provide recommendations for further reductions and lead the way in reducing emissions. Stay tuned for an update.

These are all reasons for optimism. So, on days when our air isn’t fit to breathe and we make a conscious choice to reduce our own emissions, we can rest assured that the university is doing its part too.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

Invert the Inversion

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, campus engagement, Sustainability Office

It is hard to ignore Salt Lake Valley’s poor air quality this winter unless you’ve figured out how to shut your eyes and mouth and plug your nose (or you haven’t gone outside at all). Views of our mountains, the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges, are at times completely obscured by the smog surrounding us. That tickle in the throat could be a virus or it could be a reaction to inhaling the pollution hovering over the city. Neither are good options.

But wait, there is good news. We can reduce the particulate matter choking our healthy air by making different choices—particularly when getting from point A to point B. For the month of February, join the university’s Clear the Air Challenge team and help invert the inversion. Improve air quality (and be eligible from some cool opportunity drawing prizes from GREENbikeCotopaxi the Campus Bike Shop and more).

Now in its 10th year of friendly competition, Utah’s Clear the Air Challenge encourages people to take fewer trips, and the U is the reigning champion. Did you know that mobile sources, including our cars, are responsible for nearly half of the fine particulate matter on our wintertime poor air quality days? By using TravelWise strategies—including walking, biking, riding transit, carpooling and more—we can cut transportation-related emissions. Through collective action, by changing the way we travel we can make a big difference.

In 2018, the challenge saved an estimated 386 tons of CO2 or the equivalent of the emissions from nearly 45 million smartphones charged. By logging your alternative transportation trips on the online dashboard or through the brand new mobile app, you can track your contribution to emissions saved, plus see your dollars saved and calories burned in comparison to driving alone.

Automate your commute trips

For the first time in its history, the Clear the Air Challenge now connects with two different apps. The first app, Commute Tracker by RideAmigos is specifically designed to work with the challenge to log a user’s commute data. Find a step-by-step guide to connecting the app with your Clear the Air Challenge account on the university’s sustainability website.

The second app is Strava, a free fitness app particularly popular with cyclists and runners. Strava connects with any GPS-enabled device and tracks and analyzes personal health information. Ginger Cannon, active transportation manager for the U, said, “I use Strava because I can track every activity I do, including my active commute to work. Strava can also help connect you to a virtual community of like-minded people–for example, there is a commuter group you can join to meet others who bike or walk to the university.”

Who can participate?

The Clear the Air Challenge is for everyone. Sincerely. Even friends and family are welcome to join the University of Utah team. There are so many different ways to engage in reducing emissions from transportation. Obvious options include riding transit and shuttles, bicycling, and walking—even if it is just walking to a nearby meeting instead of driving.  Even those who need to drive have options, including skipping trips by bringing lunch from home and trip chaining by doing multiple errands in a row to avoid vehicle cold starts.

Together we can clear the air. Join the team and let’s get started.

The university’s Clear the Air Challenge participation is managed by the Sustainability Office, with support from ASUU, Commuter Services, University of Utah Health, Real Estate Administration and University Marketing & Communications. The Clear the Air Challenge is a partnership between TravelWise, UCAIR and the Salt Lake Chamber.