Today, Paris's Air Pollution Is Worse Than Beijing

It's so bad, the city's instituting driving bans.

Mar 17 2014, 4:00pm
Image: William Perugini/Shutterstock

When you think of polluted cities, the Chinese capital probably springs to mind above all others—and with good reason, given the record-breaking levels of lung-killing smog. But in the past few days, another city is competing with Beijing when it comes to air pollution: Paris.

Since Wednesday, northern France has seen warm, still days and clear nights. While that might sound perfect for romantic soirées by the Seine, it’s bad for air quality. According to the Independent, those conditions have “clamped a lid of warm air” over part of the country, which is trapping harmful particles from car exhausts and industry. 

All that has led to levels of pollution worse than those in Beijing—though the Guardian points out with fairness that that’s only true last week and today, and that Paris is usually nowhere near as bad as its Chinese counterpart. Beijing on a bad day has been recorded to reach pollution levels multiple times higher than Paris’ worst. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

On Friday, the city’s air quality index rating rose to 185, which puts it firmly in the “unhealthy” bracket of the index, meaning anyone could have adverse health effects as a result of breathing the smog. “Good” is below 50, and at 300 a place is considered to be in emergency conditions. The problem is in what are known as PM10 particulates—particles smaller than 10 micrometers across, which are small enough to get into your lungs and wreak havoc with your respiratory system.

To tackle the sudden dangerous atmosphere, the government has brought in drastic driving restrictions. Today, only cars whose license plates end in odd numbers are allowed on the roads in the city; if conditions remain bad tomorrow, then only even numbers will be allowed. Commuters can get around the limit by car pooling, as vehicles with more than three passengers get a free pass, and public transport is free. Hybrid and electric cars are fine too.

The car ban sounds like a good way of dealing with the crisis, at least temporarily—and it’s something that’s been proposed as a solution to pollution in other cities, like the illegally smoggy London—but reports suggest it’s not really working. According to the BBC, the fine for driving on the wrong day is only €22 ($30), which has led many Parisians to simply try their luck on the roads anyway. It probably doesn’t help that the city doesn’t look that smoggy, as most of the pollution in this case is invisible. A French news report says 4,000 fines have already been handed out this morning.

Unsurprisingly, motorists’ groups are also unhappy with the government action, but it’s indisputable that cars play some role in the pollution levels. In fact, the Independent has an interesting insight into how the French car industry might have exacerbated the problem owing to the popularity of diesel cars in the country. They write that back in the 1960s French government and industry decided to push diesel engines as they were then thought (ironically, it transpires) to be less polluting than petrol.

Apparently, 60 percent of cars are now diesel, and tax is still lower on diesel fuel compared to petrol. The problem is that, while diesel is more carbon efficient than petrol, we’ve since found that it could actually be more harmful to health, and the World Health Organisation came out and said diesel fumes were definitely carcinogenic. While clean diesels have made major strides in recent years, but across the fleet, diesels generally produce more particulate matter than their petrol counterparts.

Of course, a simple effort at reduction would be to tax diesel fuel more, but that wouldn’t exactly be a popular proposal to voters. Or of course, there’s always electric cars—though Paris already has an electric car sharing scheme, which is now heading to London too.

For now, the city’s holding out for cooler, windier weather later this week.