Today’s question was easy. It is almost insulting to Beijing’s residents, who live consistently with levels of pollution similar to those seen in Paris last week, to compare the two cities.
It is true that Beijing saw comparatively low levels of pollution on Friday, while Paris, London and much of Europe slipped into pollution levels that are considered dangerous to human health. Even today’s more moderate smog was worse than readings from Beijing.
But Beijing’s annual mean concentrations of tiny PM10 particles and even tinier PM2.5 particles are three and five times larger than Paris respectively. Both types of particle are dangerous to human health.
The spike in Paris, in which the air quality index rose to 185, would constitute a fairly humdrum day in Beijing and many other Chinese cities. Last month, pollution levels in the Chinese capital were close to the scale’s maximum of 500.
The Parisian smog sparked a debate about the tax breaks for diesel, which have so dramatically influenced the profile of the French car industry. Cheap diesel has been a reality in France for 30 years. This will be a real problem for the French because diesel has now been shown to be seriously carcinogenic. However, there is nothing to indicate that this particular event was caused by diesel emissions in particular. This was a Europe-wide event, caused by still weather and car exhausts from all over the region. It would make sense that the smog in Paris could have been more dangerous because of the prevalence of diesel engines, but there has been no scientific study to prove this.
The really shocking revelation from today’s audit was the graph that showed Lagos has the same amount of air pollution as Beijing. The Chinese capital’s pollution receives enormous attention and there are massive centrally-controlled programs in place to ameliorate it. But how can change occur amongst the smoggy poverty of Lagos? Where much of the pollution is caused by ancient vehicles, bad roads, unregulated industry and open incinerators.
Paris smog: key event for European policy?
Alan Andrews from ClientEarth said:
“The European Commission proposed legislation in December which aims to tackle the transboundary pollution that contributes to these kinds of smog events. However the proposal was roundly criticised for its lack of ambition, mainly because the new national limits it sets on pollution emissions won’t bite until 2030. MEPs will be discussing the EU proposal at an environment committee meeting on Wednesday. Unless they beef up the ambition level and urgency we’ll be condemned to decades more of these kinds of smogs. Air pollution ought to be one of the key environmental issues in the forthcoming EU elections. Commission take action against the UK in relation to nitrogen dioxide and ratcheting up legal action against Belgium in relation to illegal levels of PM10. France was already expected to be one of the next in the firing line so this could not have come at a worse time for them. The European Court of Justice is due to hear the ClientEarth case later this year, which will have a huge bearing not just on UK cities, but also on places like Paris which are similarly projecting illegal levels of pollution until after 2020.”
Photos from France under smog
The Guardian’s photos desk has published a series of photos documenting the pollution cloaking France.
Paris car ban cancelled after one day
My colleague Anne Penketh reports from Paris that the car ban has been cancelled after just one day with the government claiming it has been successful in reducing pollution.
“Bravo, and thank you,” the ecology minister, Philippe Martin, said in a message to the residents of Paris and the surrounding region as he announced that the alternating driving scheme would end at midnight on Monday.
Under the emergency regulations, 700 police had been ordered onto the streets from dawn to ensure that only cars and motorbikes bearing odd-numbered plates were being driven.
Martin said that 90% of Parisians had complied with the restrictions… He insisted that there had been none of the chaos feared after the last such experiment 17 years ago.
By the afternoon, police had issued 3,859 drivers with €22 (£18) fines for driving with the incorrect number plates.
Martin said the government decided against extending the restrictions because the weather conditions were improving and the pollution level would not breach the safe limit on Tuesday. But experts said it would take some time to determine the impact of the car ban on the pollution levels.
“Normally, of course these days, particle levels are much higher in Beijing than Europe. However, let’s remember that scientists, policy makers and campaigners are worried about particles and gases making up air pollution. The particles are regulated as a lump for health and legal purposes i.e. all of them. In contrast, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is the only gas regulated within all the gases for modern purposes i.e. with sulphur dioxide largely eliminated by ultra low sulphur fuels. We are also worried about short-term and long-term exposure (i.e. hourly/daily or annual average) as these have different health impacts.
“Average levels of NO2, a combustion gas, in London are over three times the legal limit and World Health Organisation guideline near some of our busiest streets and the highest of any capital city in Europe.”
Gary Fuller of King’s College London and Guardian Pollutionwatch blogger tells me Beijing’s pollution generally outstrips Paris and it’s surrounding cities.
“Certainly the maximum concentrations that Beijing sees in pollution episodes are far worse than we experience in western Europe,” he said.
He said the recent Paris pollution had come from stagnant air building up under an unusually still weather pattern across much of Europe. Cars had been pumping nitrates into the same air for much of the week.
“It’s like we are all in the same room,” he said.
Sometimes European smog is caused by coal burning in eastern Europe, but analysis of the current cloud showed the problem had been caused by traffic exhausts.
In Beijing, air pollution is related mostly to their coal power plants, all of which the government has undertaken to shut down by 2017.
Fuller says the scientific consensus is that concentration levels are the major determining factor in air pollution health problems. With that in mind, it seems fair to say that Beijing’s air pollution is not only worse in an aesthetic sense, it’s also more dangerous. But scientists do not know which chemicals within smog make it dangerous, meaning some cities might have hidden dangers within a low pollution profile.
London transport reaction
An adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson said:
“The Mayor takes London’s air quality extremely seriously and has implemented ambitious daily pollution tackling measures so that the capital does not need to use emergency car restrictions. We looked into similar schemes and we found these measures don’t work in the long term and can have the unintended consequence of moving problem pollution from one area to another. Instead, the Mayor has committed millions of pounds to delivering pioneering initiatives, including proposing a new Ultra Low Emission Zone and creating Europe’s largest fleet of hybrid buses to improve air quality. Nevertheless the Mayor recognises more needs to be done and is constantly looking at new ways to boost air quality and create a cleaner, greener environment.”
London’s own pollution problems
London’s AQI levels also headed into dangerous territory last week. On Thursday, the city registered an AQI reading of 160.
Client Earth advisor Maria Arnold suggested that politicians were shy of issuing smog warnings because they place scrutiny on their green initiatives.
“While Paris certainly suffered higher levels, the UK seem to have managed to slip under the radar – we shouldn’t forget that for example on Thursday the London Marylebone Road monitor measured 155 for PM2.5 and that parts of the UK were 9 or 10 on the Air Quality Index.
“Despite south England experiencing a serious smog event last week the UK government decided to keep pretty quiet on the subject – only posting a news item on the Defra news page and sending a tweet or two, but no smog alerts to the media which is what was needed to communicate to the wider public and make sure people could take protective measures. Indeed, ever since a press release on a predicted high pollution event got an uncomfortable amount of coverage in 2011 there have been no more.
“We know that during high pollution events, more people will die from heart attacks and strokes and more people will be admitted to hospital with asthma and other breathing problems. Older people and those with pre-existing health problems are advised to reduce physical activity or even stay indoors. But in the UK way of doing things, how do these people get the message? They have to proactively sign up to a twitter feed or air text service, or check the Defra news page. It’s hardly an acceptable way to communicate to the public for something this important.”
The Kings College London Air website has just published this analysis of the London spike, which was related to the Paris event:
This is the worst PM10 episode to affect London for two years; the mean background PM10 in London reached its greatest concentrations since 15th March 2012. Tracing back London’s air during this episode shows that air flowed across northern Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium before reaching us. This is reflected in the composition of particles measured by real-time aerosol mass spectrometers in London which showed a dominance of nitrate and organic particles, consistent with distant traffic emissions that have been chemically aged in the atmosphere.
Beijing’s tiny particle levels 5 times higher than Paris
Only three out of 74 Chinese cities met national air quality standards in 2013, reported the South China Morning Post last week. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area was singled out as one of the worst offenders.
Annual average levels of PM2.5 – tiny pollutant particles smaller than 2.5 microns that can penetrate deep into the lungs – reached 106 micrograms per cubic metre in the region, more than 10 times the World Health Organisation’s safety limit of 10.
The WHO says the Paris PM2.5 annual average for 2008 was 22.9 micrograms per cubic metre. Coupled with the finding that the PM10 average for Paris is less than a third of Beijing’s, we have a pretty good picture of how Paris’ problem compares with the massive pollution in China.
Meanwhile, the on Autoroute 1 in Paris the AQI have slipped over 100, meaning people with preexisting respiratory conditions are at risk.
Beijing’s pollution readings are currently quite low (AQI 61). I’m trying to find out why this might be, it doesn’t appear to be particularly windy in Beijing tonight. But the levels that caused a major alert last week in Paris (AQI 185) seem to be commonplace elsewhere in China.
On London’s own air pollution problems, Friends of the Earth campaigner, Jenny Bates said:
“The French are right to get tough on air pollution – it’s time we did the same in this country too. Tens of thousands of people die prematurely in Britain every year because of poor air quality, and the EU has now launched legal proceedings over our failure to tackle it. The situation is particularly bad in London, where Boris Johnson and the UK Government have done far too little. Strong and urgent measures are needed to reduce London traffic levels if we are to end this scandal, and make it a capital city to be proud of.”
Online carpooling service BlaBlaCar said we needed to change the way we commute.
“Today’s news from Paris shows how urgently we need to reassess our car use. At the moment, it’s simply unsustainable. Just look at the cars around you in a traffic jam – the likelihood is that they’re only carrying one passenger.
“In the UK, the average car occupancy is 1.6 people per vehicle. We all expect and deserve mobility, but with seven billion of us on this planet, there’s no way we can all have our own car. That would be a catastrophe for the environment. We’re going to hit a wall unless we radically overhaul our car use”.
“The Coalition government and London mayor Boris Johnson simply are not doing enough to protect Londoners from the killer problem that is air pollution, despite repeated warnings from the European Parliament. Every year, nearly 30,000 people in the UK and over 4,000 on London die prematurely because of air pollution – yet the issue isn’t taken nearly as seriously as it should be.
“Nobody should be forced to stay indoors because of air pollution. That’s why we need to cut the amount of automotive traffic on our city centre roads and move towards cleaner transport solutions.”
James MacColl from Campaign for Better Transport said:
The example in Paris highlights what a danger car emissions can be to air quality and people’s health. We have problems with pollution in the UK too and we need innovative solutions if we are to have clean, efficient cities. We managed to get 35 per cent of Londoners to make changes to their daily travel to reduce road congestion during the Olympics in 2012 – we mustn’t lose the legacy of the lessons learned then on managing demand for car use. People need to have good alternatives to car use in cities, whether it’s walking, cycling or public transport options.
In addition, the severe cuts to bus services we’re seeing throughout the UK as a result of pressures on local authorities’ spending may push people in to their cars – the Chancellor needs to use the Budget this week to put in a funding package to save our buses.
If anyone can answer this I’d be very interested. Email me on [email protected]
The diesel debate in France
I’m just going to come out and answer the question now. Paris does not have worse air than Beijing. It did last week and it does today. But on average it’s not even in the same industrial park. What is true is that Paris has an air pollution problem. And on a European scale it’s pretty bad.
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 levies on diesel were eased, and continue to be eased, to such an extent that the tax breaks on diesel cost the French economy almost €8 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.
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.
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 Guardian’s Anne Penketh reports from Paris that the driving ban has been met with opposition among French commuters.
A revolutionary streak runs through French society. Rules are made to be broken, as anyone who has tried to use a pedestrian crossing in Paris knows. Parisians interviewed on Sunday said that, particularly in the case of those working in the suburbs, their car is essential for travel and they would be prepared to defy the temporary ban and risk incurring a €22 (£18) fine.
But to caricature the French as belligerent and uncaring is perhaps a little glib (dare I say anglophile). Much of the French media has been devoted to serious debate over the causes of the problems. A survey in French magazine Le Point asked more than 14000 people: Do you agree with the principle of alternating traffic? 64% said ‘non’ and 36% responded with the affirmative. Considering the impost the measure puts on commuters and the suddenness with which it was imposed, perhaps it is surprising opposition is not higher?
The air quality index
The air quality index (AQI) is commonly used by major cities around the world. It measures levels of five major air pollutants – ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
According to Air Now, the AQI is separated into categories based on health concerns.
- “Good” AQI is 0 – 50. Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
- “Moderate” AQI is 51 – 100. Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people. For example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.
- “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” AQI is 101 – 150. Although general public is not likely to be affected at this AQI range, people with lung disease, older adults and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone, whereas persons with heart and lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air.
- “Unhealthy” AQI is 151 – 200. Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects. .
- “Very Unhealthy” AQI is 201 – 300. This would trigger a health alert signifying that everyone may experience more serious health effects.
- “Hazardous” AQI greater than 300. This would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.
Paris’ levels peaked last week in the unhealthy range.
Air pollution is also commonly measured by the levels of particles smaller than 2.5 or 10 microns across. PM10 particles are small enough to enter your lungs and cause damage. But PM2.5 particles, generated by car exhausts in particular, are really nasty because they penetrate more deeply and are more toxic. Paris’ annual mean for PM2.5 particles is 22.9ug/m3. London is almost half this at 13.5 ug/m3.
According to Air Info Now’s website:
Your lungs produce mucous to trap the particles, and tiny hairs wiggle to move the mucous and particles out of the lung. You may notice something in the back of your throat (this is the mucous); the mucous leaves the airway by coughing or swallowing. If the particle is small and it gets very far into the lungs, special cells in the lung trap the particles and then they can’t get out and this can result in lung disease, emphysema, lung cancer.
Paris vs Beijing
The Parisian air quality index (AQI) readings for Friday were indeed high, higher even than Beijing. As they are again today according to environmental risk specialist Arshad Bhat.
But, commenter johnai points out, the peak of 185 on Friday is still a long way from the highs in Beijing in February, which approached the 500 mark.
A comparison of the average air pollution of these cities (recorded by the World Health Organisation) shows clearly (excuse the pun) that any given day in Beijing is likely to be far more polluted than Paris. More than most cities in the world in fact. Lagos being a notable exception. The data from the WHO is based on measurements of particulate matter smaller than 10 microns (PM10) rather than the AQI quoted above (I’ll get into the difference later).
Comments from a Paris resident
Joanna Robertson is a long term resident of Montparnasse in central Paris. She says the driving ban has not noticeably reduce traffic on the roads.
The smog-cloud is far less visible today but the air quality remains very poor. I’m still coughing from the morning school-run (ten minute cycle each way) four hours ago. My daughter, aged 8, has been coughing and sneezing and wheezing for the past week. There are still the same number of cars on the road as on an average Monday and the general consensus amongst my neighbourhood Parisians is that all in confusion – not enough information, alternate days based on number plate ‘odd and even’ unenforceable and the fine – 22 euros – not nearly enough to deter anyone. As a quote from an interview in the popular free morning daily paper ‘20 Minutes’ points out this morning – ‘Pay 22 euros or miss a day’s pay from missing work? The choice is obvious.’ I haven’t seen one police officer checking cars and they can’t possibly carry out the threat to clamp parked vehicles as they have no proof if they were driven-in today or not. With free transport, one-hour free electric car scheme hire and free Velib bicycles – still, no-one’s listening. And lots of non-driving residents are very angry indeed.
Still conditions have left the cloud of pollution hanging over much of Europe. 30 of France’s 90 départements have recorded dangerous levels of air quality. These images show how little the situation changed between Friday and Sunday.
Welcome to the eco audit
Still, warm spring days have left a chemical soup hanging above the City of Light, choking the famous boulevards and leading the French government to implement an alternating driving ban and offer free public transport over the last weekend.
On Friday, Paris’ air quality index (AQI) rose to 185, higher than the world’s most notoriously polluted cities, including Beijing. The AQI measures fine particulate matter in the air. Measurements below 50 are considered normal. Over 150, pollution becomes dangerous to human health.
Jean-Paul Huchon, head of the Paris’ transport administration STIF, said that due to the “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”.
Reports from France say more than 3000 drivers have been fined already this morning. The driving ban, based on alternating odd and even number plates, is a commonly used technique for reducing pollution during emergencies in major cities. An alternating ban was used in Paris once before in 1997. According to the BBC, Paris air quality monitoring body Airparif said the measure hard “a noticeable impact” on air quality, although these findings have been disputed.
Join me today to discuss whether Paris’ air normally rank among the world’s worst. What are the causes behind this week’s spike? And what can other cities learn from the Parisian experience?
Please join in today’s discussion by contributing in the comments below, tweet me or email me. If you are quoting figures or studies, please provide a link to the original source. Follow me on @karlmathiesen for updates throughout the day and I will let you know when I return with my own verdict.
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