Paris Car Ban, Just A PR Gimmick?

Balmy spring days in Northern Europe have left a chemical soup in the streets and avenues of Paris, choking the boulevards and leading to the implementation of a partial car ban, and an offer of free public transport over the last weekend.

Last Friday (14 March), the air quality index (AQI) rose to a massive 185 which was higher than the world’s most notoriously polluted city, Beijing. The head of the Paris Transport Administration, Jean Paul Huchon, said that due to “significant risks to the health of residents…I am asking all residents in Paris and neighbouring areas to favour the use of public transport.” French Ecology Minister, Philippe Martin, said air quality was “an emergency and a priority for the government.”

If you believe the films that come out of Hollywood, then all the fog or smog in Europe hangs out over London, and Paris is the city of eternal spring weather. The reality is very different. For a start, Paris has more rainy days than London, and Paris is seen as being more smog-prone than other European capitals, particularly due to the high pressure systems that sit over the region every autumn and spring. The situation creates a stagnation of air, an ideal condition for the diesel fumes being belched out to build up and get concentrated.

The Huffington Post is carrying an article which traces the roots of the French pollution to the government’s post-war rural economic stimulus policies. The French aimed to encourage rural recovery (around half of the population lived in the countryside at that time) by making diesel for farm machinery and trucks cheaper. Thus, taxes levied on diesel were eased and continue to be eased to such an extent that the tax breaks on diesel cost the French economy almost EUR8 billion in 2011.

The effect on France’s car market has been dramatic. In 2011, 70% of French car sales were diesel; in Germany it was 47%. The levies are entrenched by a powerful corporate diesel lobby. Why does this matter? Because diesel creates more particulate pollution than petrol and the fumes are more damaging. In 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that diesel fumes were definitely carcinogenic. Last year The Guardian’s John Vidal reported on findings by the UK government that diesel was considerably more harmful to human health than petrol.

Diesel engines have been seen as a way to reduce carbon emissions, as they are more carbon-efficient than petrol. But the recent findings have lead to questions about whether diesel is a viable transport alternative. The UK government accepts that air pollution from all sources contributes to about 30 000 deaths a year in Britain. But the research estimates that diesel-related health problems cost the NHS more than 10 times as much as comparable problems caused by petrol fumes; the question is ‘when will diesel-powered vehicles carry a cigarette-style health warning?’

So will the French government’s ban on cars be effective? Probably not. The French government dictated that drivers may only use their vehicles on alternate days and on the first day of the ban, when about 3000 drivers got fined for driving with the wrong number plate, the pollution levels dropped.

Political opponents criticised the decision for being misdirected and accused the socialist government of conceding to pressure from its coalition’s green partners, ahead of elections in March.

Pierre Chasseray, President of 40 Millions d’Autombolistes, a motorist lobby group, told French television and newspapers, “This is impossible to enforce, stupid and an attempt to win votes.”

Opposition UMP’s Chief, Jean-Francois Cope, who is also mayor of Meaux in the suburbs of Paris, said there was a lot of confusion about the scheme. “The ecologists have applied a lot of pressure on the government and the decision was rushed. It lacks coherence, explanation and – on the ground, as a mayor from one of Paris’ suburbs – it’s panic.”

On Monday, the pollution level started to fall although this was as probably as much to do with the change in the weather as it was to do with the car ban.


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