Feature: Paris must now ‘walk the talk’ on clean air

On paper, Paris’ clean air strategy is world-leading, but campaigners are increasingly concerned that frequent delays will leave an air pollution picture in the city that is a far cry from what was promised, discovers Chloe Coules.  

No one can deny that the City of Paris is ambitious on air quality. From banning all diesel vehicles to creating school streets in front of the 300 most polluted schools in the city, the plans outlined by the Ville de Paris would make the city a global leader on tackling air pollution.  

However, in practise plans to curb air pollution levels in the city have been met by many obstacles.  

According to Airparif, a network that monitors the quality of the air in the city, road transport is one of the leading causes of air pollution in Paris, representing more than half of nitrogen oxide emissions in 2017 and nearly 20% of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions.  

To combat this, the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo introduced a range of measures to improve air quality in the city, including banning all diesel vehicles, introducing a low traffic zone (LTZ), creating school streets in front of 300 of the most polluted schools, building 180km of extra cycle lanes in the city, enforcing parking fees for motorbikes and mopeds, and scrapping half of the city’s surface car parking spaces by 2026. 

Despite bold leadership shown with these measures, most of them have yet to materialise.  

The city’s LTZ has been delayed from early 2022 to 2024, the phase out of diesel vehicles is also being delayed to 2024, and the parking fees for two-wheel vehicles have been delayed until September, after being set to be introduced in January.  

On top of this, campaigners say measures may be watered down in practise.  

Pierre Dornier, Coordinator of Clean Cities Campaign France, tells Air Quality News that it is ‘quite likely’ that not all diesel vehicles will be banned in 2024, with a risk that it will only cover cars and not vans and trucks.  

He also explains that the €250m investment in creating 180km of cycle lanes inside Paris is being spent on building on quiet roads with little traffic instead of the big boulevards which are most important.  

Clean Cities Campaign published a School Streets Observatory, finding that only 9% of the 300 most polluted schools currently have school streets, so if the City of Paris are to reach their aim of 100% by 2026, they are going to need to accelerate their plans substantially.  

Pierre argues: ‘Paris must now walk the talk if they want to show that they are serious about cleaning up the air.’ 

Why are measures being delayed? 

The disparity between the city’s clean air plans in theory and practise raises questions about whether the strategy is unrealistic. 

However, Pierre argues that this kind of ambition is proportionate with the urgency that air pollution creates: ‘I think [the plans] are realistic, because air pollution and premature deaths are a reality. They need to act quickly and strongly, and the Covid-19 crisis shows very clearly in Paris and a lot of different cities that you can actually do a lot of things in very little time.’ 

In response to questions about the delay, Deputy Mayor of Paris David Belliard told Le Parisien: ‘We are talking about a very ambitious project. It is normal to give yourself time.’ 

However, Pierre says the plans did not need delaying: ‘The reason Greater Paris gave [for the LTZ delay] is because they do not have the means to control the Low Emission Zone, which is true. In France at the moment, you are not allowed to install CCTV systems to check who is entering and exiting the Low Emission Zone, like is the case in London for example.  

‘Now this does not mean that they have to delay the whole thing for that, but this is their argument. They are also saying that financial help is not ready for everybody, so they do not want to force it too much, because then it might be unfair for certain people. But here again, I’m not sure this is a real issue, because there are alternatives.’ 

‘I think it is a bit of an excuse to be honest, and they definitely could keep the current calendar – they have been preparing it since 2017.’ 

Is the Olympics a help or a hindrance? 

The City of Paris have made the decision to coincide their clean air plans with the city’s Paris 2024 Olympic Games, in a bid to show that hosting the major sporting event can be a driver of positive environmental change.  

‘Paris wants to show that you can host the Olympic Games and at the same time be an environmentally responsible city, in terms of construction and also in terms of air pollution. So that is why they chose 2024 for the ban of diesel vehicles,’ explains Pierre Dornier.  

However, he argues that in practise, the Olympics have the potential to act against air quality.  

‘Now what we see is that the Olympic Games can actually play against air quality, because when you organise the Olympic Games you have tonnes of works to do, so very big priorities with huge budgets. If you have to choose between building a cycle lane and finishing the stadium where the Games will take place, you will definitely prioritise the stadium. If you have to choose between creating a Low Traffic Zone and finishing the Olympic swimming pool, you will definitely prioritise the Olympic swimming pool. 

‘So, this is why we said that it is absolutely not a good idea to delay the Low Traffic Zone to 2024, because it will be the lowest of the priorities for politicians because of the Olympic Games.  

‘We also see that works linked to the Olympic Games can create air pollution. There is a very specific example in the north of Paris in a municipality this is called Saint-Denis, that will host the Olympic Village. For this Olympic Village, they are creating new roads around a school that is already three times above the WHO guidelines for NO2. With these new roads for the Olympic Village, the air pollution is going to increase even more – there are 600 children in this school. So, this is an example of how the Olympic Games can also play against the air quality in Greater Paris.’ 

Despite big ambitions, Paris is yet to see substantial concrete action to tackle its air pollution levels. If the city wants to cement its status as a world-leader on air pollution, it must first deliver on its promises and prove that air pollution is a priority.  


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