The French government plans to fight air pollution by creating environmental zones. Paris’ mayor has even suggested taking all diesel cars of the capital city’s streets by 2020. But there’s one tradition that the environment minister refuses to part with: cosy winter evenings around a crackling fireplace. Christine Longin reports from Paris.
Like elsewhere around the world, cosy and warm homes are a must-have during the Christmas season in France. And so by royal decree, residents of Greater Paris will still be allowed use their fireplaces: “You can continue to light small Christmas fires,” announced environment minister Ségolène Royal on Tuesday, thus overturning a ban that should have been put in place beginning next year. But the battle against air pollution must still continue somehow because Paris is smothered in smog, making it impossible even to see the Eiffel Tower at times.
Environmental zones in autumn 2015
According to the environment minister, fireplaces aren’t at all responsible for the smog. “It makes us look ridiculous,” said Royal. She has instead set her sights on the diesel vehicles that spew out mass amounts of fine particulate matter onto the streets of major French cities each day. The socialist politician announced her intention to use special stickers to ban old diesel cars from entering city centres, just as Germany did in its major cities in 2008. An environmental zone in Paris will come into effect on a trial basis in autumn 2015.
No more diesel in Paris
Diesel cars that are more than 13 years old – and will therefore be banned from entering the city centre – make up 10 per cent of the traffic in Paris and other major cities, according to the French environment agency Ademe. Paris’ mayor, Anne Hidalgo, argues that the city should go one step further: She wants all diesel cars banned in France’s capital by 2020. “We don’t want any more diesel in Paris,” the socialist politician told the “Journal du Dimanche” newspaper.
Special lanes should instead be created for electric or gas-powered vehicles, and streets such as the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, which runs along the Louvre, should be closed altogether for all other vehicles. In the city centre around the town hall, access should be restricted to buses, taxis, delivery vehicles and residents.
Part of the problem, however, is that the French government spent decades offering a tax subsidy on diesel vehicles, so that today roughly two-thirds of all cars on French streets have a diesel motor. And yet something must be done: a recent survey found that air pollution has become a major concern for 84 per cent of Parisians. No wonder that the majority welcome Hidalgo’s plans.
Parisians under a blanket of smog
The environmental organisation Ecologie without borders estimates that around 42,000 people die prematurely each year in France as a result of fine particulate matter. And it’s getting worse. On 13 December 2013, the air in Paris was so poor that it was akin to a 20-square-metre room filled with eight smokers. “Parisians have been living under a blanket of smog,” said Jérôme Giacomoni, one of the people responsible for taking air measurements, when describing the situation. A driving ban on half the cars in the capital region was put in place in March due to the smog.
But while most agree that the situation cannot be allowed to continue or worsen, around 60 per cent of Parisians anyway don’t own a car, which means that the mayor’s plan will mostly affect residents from the poorer suburbs who commute each day to the city’s centre. “Explain to me how a bartender from the suburbs can travel into the city at night by public transit or with an e-bike?” retorted Daniel Quéro from the automobile association 40 millions d’automobilistes in response to Hidalgo’s initiative.
Valid criticisms aside, the mayor – who rules together with the Green Party – is under pressure because the air pollution isn’t just damaging people’s health: it’s damaging the city’s reputation. Paris will host the World Climate Summit next year, and it would be the ultimate disgrace if a grey cloud of smog hung over the Eiffel Tower.