France took drastic measures to curb pollution problems on Monday, instituting alternate-day driving restrictions in Paris. Many were surprised to see news about air pollution that didn’t come with the hashtag “China,” but the smog blocking the view of the Eiffel Tower plagues more than just the City of Love. The air quality in much of Europe is so bad, in fact, it's the No. 1 environmental cause of premature death on the Continent.
Last year, some regions in Germany, Europe's largest polluter, even considered the drastic step of banning all cars to reduce toxic air. The European Commission initiated legal action against the U.K. in February for breaches of air pollution limits. In Spain, the World Health Organization in 2012 said that 94 percent of the population is breathing unacceptably polluted air. Real-time air quality measurements in Europe list several cities across the continent with medium to high pollution indexes; Avignon, for example, had a 92 (high) on its roads on a recent night—at 2 a.m.
High-pressure weather systems brought pleasant weather to France this winter, but with the stable conditions came pollution peaks as toxic chemicals were unable to disperse. (Los Angeles had the same problem in January, one of the warmest on record, leading to health problems.) Whatever the cause, more than half of Europeans think air quality has deteriorated in the last 10 years, according to the Eurobarometer, a public opinion measurement agency of the EU.
Martin Nesbit, a senior fellow and head of the Environmental Governance Team at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said that though steady progress has been made to improve air quality, the hope placed on laws to combat poor air quality might not have been entirely realistic.
“The basic problem is that member states were optimistic in what they thought could be achieved when they adopted air quality legislation and have struggled to make progress on reducing emission at source,” he said. “Emissions standards for passenger vehicles have tended not to be ambitious enough to enable the air quality standards to be met.”
As member states scramble to enforce existing legislation, a proposed package including a Clean Air Programme for Europe aims to avoid 58,000 premature deaths by 2030 and save 123 million square miles of ecosystem from nitrogen pollution.
One problem still permeating the air is particulate matter, or PM, which was the cause of France's visibly poor air quality this week.
PM 10, particles less then 10 microns in diameter, are emitted from vehicles, power plants, and coal-fired power plants. The particles are so small that they can penetrate the lungs, causing or aggravating serious respiratory issues such as bronchitis and lung disease while reducing the body's ability to fight off infection—a matter of particular concern to children, the elderly, and other immunocompromised individuals.
Nesbit said that recent spikes in air pollution—whatever the cause—might be enough to get Europe to clean up its act.
“It's more likely [the EU] will increase pressure on member states to comply with existing air quality standards,” he said.
London won't be replicating Paris' new policy, but it announced a $329 million fund yesterday geared to improving air quality. The money will help implement Mayor Boris Johnson's ultralow emission zone by 2020, put electric single-decker buses on the roads, and financially help taxi drivers to upgrade their iconic black cabs to zero-emission vehicles.