It may have lasted just 24-hours, but this week’s car ban in Paris should come as a strong warning for European cities about the potential impacts of air pollution across the continent.
While scenes of thick smog and poor air quality may be expected in cities like Beijing and Mumbai, in the elegant capital city of Paris, pollution is rarely so severe – particularly so early in the year or for prolonged periods of time.
But this week, air pollution reached such dangerous level that the French government imposed a partial car ban across the city.
While for Parisians taking public transport, this came as a welcomed surprise, with free subways and buses, hundreds of police officers had to be deployed to ensure the ban was enforced, as half of the city’s cars (even-numbered licence plates) had to remain at home.
It is the first such ban for 20 years. While nowhere near the levels seen in some Asian cities, figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA) showed 147 microgammes of particulate matter (PM) per cubicmetre of air in Paris.
That’s compared to 114 in Brussels, 104 in Amsterdam, 81 in Berlin and 79.7 in London.
Paris is more prone to smog than other European capitals because of France’s diesel subsidies and its high number of private cars.
Woodsmoke and industrial emissions also contributed to the smog, while a week-long spell of unseasonably warm and sunny weather exacerbated the problem.
With climate change progressing, the sort of unseasonal warm weather the country is currently experiencing will likely only increase, threatening more episodes of dangerous air pollution.
While driving bans work in the short-term as an emergency stopgap, environmentalists are calling on the French government to learn lessons from this week’s episode and slash its dependency on diesel-powered engines.
The government decided against extending the ban into a second day, claiming weather conditions were improving and the pollution levels would not continue to breach the safe limit.
Experts say it will take some time to determine the full impact of the car ban.
The problem is not only limited to France. Research last year from the EEA suggested that air pollution in Europe could be causing 10 times more premature deaths than car accidents across the continent each year.
With dirty energy, transport and agricultural activities all contributing to air pollution, it is the one of the top environmental causes of death in Europe – responsible for over 400,000 premature deaths in 2010 alone.
Particulate matter is also responsible for a greater public health toll, leading to a range of illnesses from asthma to cancer.
The World Health Organisation has warned that in Europe alone, about 40 million people are exposed to “damaging” levels of air pollution.
In recent months other studies have shown that particulate matter from coal fired power stations is causing tens of thousands of premature deaths every year in Europe, a loss of life that is set to increase if plans for 50 new coal plants are allowed to go ahead.