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Is Paris winning the war against air pollution?

Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt, AFP | Motor vehicles on the first day of anti-pollution restrictive driving measures, next to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, on January 23, 2017

Amidst yet another prolonged peak in air pollution, it would appear that Paris is facing something of an epidemic. In fact, the French capital might be turning a corner when it comes to smog and other pollutants.


Paris City Hall on Tuesday put restrictions on some automobiles after five consecutive days of elevated air pollution levels. As part of a new system cataloguing individual cars by their emission levels, it temporarily banned cars registered prior to 2006 from circulating. The city also made residential parking and day passes for its bike-sharing programme Vélib’ free.

Experts say the pollution – on French weather maps a red blotch staining the northern half of the country – will continue throughout the week. Cold temperatures, dry air and virtually no wind are expected to keep the red blotch from dissipating, and therefore also keep it at the top of the news cycle.

French health officials this week warned that children, pregnant women, seniors and those with previous respiratory problems should avoid sports activities altogether, and stay indoors during motor-traffic peak hours. The scenario was reminiscent of late December, the last time officials issued dire warnings.

Airparif, an independent group that monitors air quality in the French capital, confirmed that the pollution streak currently suffocating Paris residents and visitors was unusually long. It nevertheless rejected the growing idea that toxic air is becoming the new norm.

“We talk about air pollution a lot more than we used to, but we don’t have more pollution now than before,” said Charlotte Songeur, an engineer and press officer at Airparif. “We have the impression things are getting worse, but our studies suggest that air quality is actually improving.”

As way of example, Songeur said her group recorded 44 days of very high air pollution for the Paris region in 2012. That number dropped to 36 in 2013, and then to 16 in 2014 and 2015. Last year Airparif recorded 15 days of very high air pollution. The measuring standards changed in 2012, becoming more rigorous, but samples going back a decade confirm a tendency toward cleaner air.

Cars and homes

This year is off to a bad start, with already three days of very high air pollution in Paris, but it’s too early to say if 2017 will buck the trend. The current peak comes after a cold snap that has gripped France and much of Europe, spurring people to crank up their furnaces, burn more wood and get behind the wheel of their car more often.

Songeur said that home heating and motor vehicle traffic alone accounted for more than two-thirds of the capital’s current air pollution peak. During normal periods of the year, the air pollution mass can be blamed almost equally on cars, homes, industry and farms -- with farms adding slightly less among the “big four”, she said.

While Airparif denies that air pollution is on the rise, it also appears to welcome the media hype. “A lot of people are just realising that this is an issue. More and more people are reaching out to us for information on pollution levels, but also seeking advice. They want to know how to protect themselves,” Songeur noted.

The monitoring group receives regular visits from schools, and gives workshops tailored to both the public and private sectors. In September, it launched a mobile application that allows users to track pollution around them in real time, as well as to plan itineraries based on air quality.

Thinking beyond peaks

For its part, the mayor’s office says it will continue encouraging people to forego their polluting cars, with a mix of incentives, including more bike lanes, free parking for electric cars and motorcycles, and other measures.

The city’s “war on cars” is a controversial subject, often pitting local shopkeepers against neighbourhood residents, and city dwellers against residents of the suburbs. Officials and people on the capital’s periphery complain city ordinances on cars affect them directly, yet they have no say in the matter.

Some say limiting car use in the capital – by expanding pedestrian-only zones and introducing alternative-day driving bans – only has a marginal impact on fighting air pollution and can have disastrous economic consequences.

Airparif’s Songeur said driving bans are essentially the only tool at City Hall’s disposal to abate air pollution during peaks, and disputes the idea that they have little impact on air quality. After just one alternative-day driving ban in 2014 pollution levels dropped by an average of 6 percent across the capital.

“The real challenge is finding solutions to fighting air pollution throughout the year, not just when we face pollution peaks and everyone is suddenly concerned,” she said. “There is always hope, and at least we’re moving in the right direction.”

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