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Can pollution-sniffing sensors drive climate action?

AirAware's co-founders seek to raise public awareness and drive higher levels of community accountability.

The mission of Project Drawdown is to encourage innovations and solutions that can help the world draw down atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases — either by avoiding emissions or sequestering carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The coalition includes researchers, scientists, graduate students, business leaders and others dedicated to this cause. What might these solutions look like?

GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing a series of Q&As with entrepreneurial Yale alumni and students working on startups and technologies inspired by the Project Drawdown agenda. Here is one of their stories. (The first installment is here.)

AirAware is an early-stage venture co-founded by Matthew Moroney and Franz Hochstrasser, both from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The venture aims to deploy a network of mobile air quality sensors that monitor air pollution for children’s daily activities, people suffering from respiratory ailments and informed citizens that want to do more to protect public health and combat climate change. In addition to increasing the density of air pollution data, the company seeks to guide individuals through safety warnings, activism cues and opportunities for community investments in renewable energy projects.

Local air pollution contributes to climate change and threatens human health. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people die every year from breathing polluted air, with poor and disadvantaged populations and children the most at risk. Moreover, the same fossil fuel burning energy-consuming behaviors that puts more than 70 percent of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, accelerating global warming, also accounts for well over 80 percent of damaging criteria pollutants such as sulfur-dioxide and PM2.5. By creating personalized risk exposure profiles that create awareness about these threats, AirAware seeks to empower individuals to hold governments accountable and push for action to target the co-drivers of climate change and public health threats. 

Mikaela Bradbury: Tell me a bit about yourselves and how you came together as a team.

Franz Hochstrasser: I grew up in California, went to high school in Iowa, back to California for college, and then back to Iowa for the Obama campaign in 2008. I had always been interested in politics and government, and joining the campaign was basically like being strapped to a rocket. I spent the next eight years in the Obama administration working first for the Department of Agriculture, and then at the White House in the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Public Engagement, and then finally on the team that negotiated the Paris Agreement on Climate Change at the Department of State. I decided to go back to school to focus on the private sector, finance and entrepreneurial approaches to the challenge of climate change and environmental issues.

Matt Moroney: I was born in San Francisco and spent the first 10 years of my life there, before moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then the Pacific Northwest for college, where I studied environmental science and chemistry. After I graduated, I worked for a regional air quality agency and then an environmental engineering consulting firm, investigating historically contaminated properties: sampling groundwater; soil;  sub-slab vapor; and indoor air quality. I came to The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies to gain a better understanding of economics and business because I think the challenge we have is financing a sustainable future that we all know needs to happen. Franz and I linked up over a course on green engineering and sustainable design.

Bradbury: Was this project born in that class? 

Hochstrasser: I had been writing some notes for this project since about 2012, after I took a trip to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the U.S. and China to Beijing working for the USDA. One of the things that stuck with me on that trip was a story about the U.S. Embassy, which had one of the only air-quality monitoring stations in Beijing at the time. At one point, the Chinese government tried to make them shut it down because they reported the air quality as "crazy bad," and this caused a big stir with the Chinese press and got a lot of attention. That story planted a thought in my brain that we need to have more awareness about how bad air quality is and what it is actually doing to people’s health.

Climate change and global warming are non-starters with many people. I believe that air pollution is a great entry point into the subject.
Bradbury: I know that AirAware is in early stages and still evolving. What form is the company today and what next steps are you taking to develop it?

Morney: Our immediate short-term goals are to develop a prototype network of sensors for the Yale University campus that can be an initial model for how these sensor networks can be installed and monitored to provide insight on local hotspots of air pollution, similar to the work Aclima is doing in San Francisco.

Hochstrasser: We hope to use this as a model for creating the type of environmental information networks and data ecosystems that can activate citizens and mobilize investors to promulgate more climate-friendly sustainable development.

Bradbury: And what types of air pollution are you monitoring?

Moroney: We are very concerned about particulate matter 10 and 2.5 microns or less, as well as traditional pollutants, such as nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide, regulated under the Clean Air Act. We also know that local air pollutants like those correlate with carbon dioxide. So, we are interested in adding CO2, as this is something that we increasingly need as states, cities and non-state actors are making carbon reduction targets.

Bradbury: How are you approaching the relationship between air quality and climate change? Is your goal to reframe climate change as a type of air pollution or address the co-drivers of both issues?

Hochstrasser: The antecedents of air pollution we have today are largely the same as those causing the climate problem. Burning fossil fuels is the main source of carbon pollution, and it’s also the main source of local criteria pollutants. Part of the motivation behind AirAware is to raise awareness about that connectivity and, in so doing, enable us to better understand where the hotspots are for climate pollutants and address those in a more accurate and geographically specific way.

Moroney: I will say that, to be honest, climate change and global warming are non-starters with many people. I believe that air pollution is a great entry point into the subject and addressing local air pollution will solve the climate change problem. No matter what your socioeconomic status or political leanings, people want to breathe clean air.

Bradbury: In the United States, are you starting to see any uproar around air pollution issues, even though the issue may not be as visible here as in places such as China?

Hochstrasser: We are not seeing enough uproar in the U.S. on air pollution. Seven out of 10 of the most polluted cities in the country are in California in the Imperial and Central Valley, and while those communities largely know they are breathing sub-standard air that is damaging their health, they don’t know how bad it is. So, it's a silent crisis in that sense. 

Also, the climate denial from the current administration, and most Republican lawmakers, is part of a larger, well-funded movement by fossil fuel interests seeking to subvert the truth. Thankfully, there is a massive and growing movement representing more than half of the U.S. population that is pushing back and saying "we are still in" the Paris Agreement, but we need even more of a groundswell.

Bradbury:  Part of your model is providing activism cues to users. What are the most powerful forms of activism people can take against air pollution and climate change today?

Hochstrasser: That is where the future of our effort is evolving. One of the biggest challenges is creating a revenue stream for a for-profit entity that is collecting this type of information. So we are working on an approach that takes this information and uses it to help design geographically specific and locally relevant climate solutions that are tailored to a bespoke purpose.

Moroney: Like a recipe. You’ll have different ingredients for every location.

Hochstrasser: For some activists, they might use it to petition against putting in a new power plant. For others, it will be to petition to close an existing high-polluting power plant.

Moroney: Or even changing the most common bus line in their neighborhood to an electric bus.

Hochstrasser: It could even be a company that's concerned about their workers, deciding to install electric vehicle charging infrastructure that incentivizes more of their customer base and employees to drive electric vehicles to reduce emissions that way.

Moroney: We've been talking about whether activism is enough. So we've been exploring how can we pair activism cues with actual investments into the solutions that are discovered by this data.

We are working on an approach that takes this information and uses it to help design geographically specific and locally relevant climate solutions that are tailored to a bespoke purpose.
Bradbury: So, your users would be able to invest in these solutions?

Moroney: Yes, that’s one potential option — plugging together all the stakeholders of that area who would be required to implement that solution and facilitating cooperatively owned investments.

Franz: Take, for example, a neighborhood that is in close proximity to a cluster of natural gas plants — say Oxnard, California. The local power company years ago had petitioned for a new plant because they knew the power producers there were going to take two plants offline. The community has activated itself to oppose the new power plant but, if it had the data around their actual pollutant exposure, that may spur them to make collective investments in a local renewable energy project that meets the demand the power company is looking for and does so through a climate-smart solution.

Moroney: Solutions emerge from the data. Right now, this data isn't available. And as soon as people become aware of it, it increases the motivation and justification for coming up with solutions. 

Bradbury: As you both approach these challenges as entrepreneurs, what are some of the advantages and differences you’re experiencing? 

Hochstrasser: Much of what governments do is set regulations, put in place rules and enforce them and that's an important way to create change, but innovation is perhaps more exciting, particularly given the current state of environmental challenges in the U.S. and the world. It's liberating to think of the opportunities that an entrepreneurial approach to addressing climate change allows. 

Bradbury: Matt, why are you interested in the entrepreneurial approach to climate change?

Moroney: I think we live in the most exciting time in human history right now. The entire model of our society since James Watt invented the steam engine in 1763 needs to change and on a very large scale. There are a trillion dollars a year, at least, that need to go into solving the climate change and pollution problems. I want to be part of channeling this money into the vision of the future.

Bradbury: Are there any thought leaders or guiding frameworks that you use as inspiration for your work? For example, Project Drawdown is one that this series is built around.

Hochstrasser: I'm a big admirer of Paul Hawken — his book "Blessed Unrest" is a roadmap for where the environmental movement needs to come together for the health of humanity and justice. There is no doubt we're under an existential threat and what Tom Steyer and Hawken are doing with Project Drawdown by identifying the critical approaches to drawing down greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere to safe levels — is key.

Moroney: One of my guiding thinkers is Carl Sagan. To look at the first picture of Earth and say, "What a miraculous spontaneous occurrence that we actually exist," can't be understated in terms of what motivates me. And, frankly, the people that inspire me the most are the people that don’t get mentioned. The people printing out community newsletters, making music and art, working hard to make their block cleaner and safer, the people that are waking up and thinking about and fighting for these things every day.

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