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Coal stove and pile of coal
A coal-burning stove typical of many homes in China.

Multidisciplinary approaches

As with much of Carter’s research, the larger team she works with has taken a multidisciplinary approach to examining the coal ban effects, including gauging subjective well-being in addition to the physical presence of pollution. In the pilot program, for instance, the villages in or out of the coal ban in the high- and medium-income districts didn’t show any difference in well-being, but the village in the coal ban in the poor district reported significantly lower well-being than the village in the same district that was still using coal at the time of the pilot study. This was consistent with the team’s hypothesis that there could be distributional impacts of the policy, and those that were most marginalized socioeconomically may experience the greatest burden.

“Unfortunately, it’s perhaps not novel to learn that already marginalized or poorer communities are more heavily impacted when new policies like this one go into place, but it is an important result to communicate and process as we try to understand how household energy transitions work,” Carter said.

Carter has found this multidisciplinary approach, incorporating social science and epidemiology along with engineering, better addresses the complex societal problems she’s trying to solve.

“Being a part of these teams engages me to think outside of what might otherwise be the narrow scope of an air quality project, and integrate sociological and technological work in ways that we hope enhances the value of the work more broadly,” Carter said.

As an example, Carter cites temperature, which epidemiologists study as a risk factor for cardiovascular health, but may also relate to well-being through comfort.

“These health and well-being impacts bring a dimension to the work that enriches the value of my team’s focus on indoor environmental quality,” she said.

She continued: “We hope the coal ban brings about changes in outdoor air quality and changes in air pollution exposure that are reductions in those levels, but it’s also critically important to understand people’s experience in their homes. Do they feel better off? Are they better off? By what means are we measuring whether or not they’re better off? Having people on our team who can help assess the diversity of impacts that may be associated with a household energy policy like this is an incredibly awesome opportunity.”

Working with colleagues who are pulling for a similar outcome — high quality, policy-relevant science — and knowing that none of them could achieve those goals alone makes it easier to embrace the difficulties and challenges inherent in research, Carter said.

“We all believe that if we work together on this, we get to a result that has more meaning and impact in the world than if I just went off by myself and did some air quality measurements in China.”

— Jayme DeLoss, Colorado State University

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