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How are cities tackling air pollution?

France has experienced various air pollution episodes in recent years. Indeed, it is common for large French cities to exceed the PM2.5 fine particle pollution alert threshold. In order to respond to this problem and find solutions, more and more French local authorities are taking up these issues. But what are they actually doing to combat air pollution in cities?

Urban pollution in France, its situation with regard to European rules

Certain climatic conditions are favourable to pollution and the March 2015 episode in France describes this perfectly. Continuous anticyclonic weather, incessant emissions of air pollutants, very inadequate measures: the perfect cocktail that produces a level and magnitude of air pollution peaks that are rare in most of France's major cities. All man-made sources of air pollutants are involved: road and non-road traffic, residential heating, industry and intensified agricultural activities in Western Europe. These activities produce secondary pollutants that pollute the atmosphere. Of these, ammonium nitrate plays an important role in the increase in PM10 levels during spring episodes. Primarily as a result of these activities, virtually all major French urban areas have experienced the worst air quality index levels ever recorded.

It is clear that these incidents are not without consequences for France and its conurbations. Europe has put in place regulations in the form of health standards that must be respected. There are many of them:

  • Monitoring air quality ;
  • Informing the public about air quality ;
  • Comply with the health standards set ;
  • Implement action plans in areas that exceed sanitation standards so that standards can be met as soon as possible ;
The European directive of 16 December 2016 also sets pollutant reduction targets, incorporating the objectives of the Gothenburg Protocol, for the various European members. If we look at France, it has set targets that would allow it to reduce its air pollution-related mortality rate from 9% to 4.5%.


Multiple sources of city pollution

Increasingly concerned about pollution, cities are looking for ways to reduce it. The main solution is to fight against the emission of pollutants. These pollutants come mainly from human activities:/p>

  • Transport
  • Heating of buildings
  • Industries and energy production
  • Open burning of waste (green waste, construction waste, etc.)

Greenhouse gases are emitted by all these activities and have been increasing for 150 years. This increase leads to global warming and therefore to climate change. There are two issues to be resolved: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating air pollution. By changing the way people act in their daily lives, it would be possible to meet these two major challenges at the same time.

The main pollutants and their main sources

Source : ADEME

Modernising transport: a solution for reducing pollution in cities

Overcrowded city centres and overcrowded public transport systems are the lot of many French cities. Car transport alone accounts for 63% of nitrogen oxide emissions.

Motorists being monitored

The Crit'Air sticker is one of the first measures implemented by the French government. Also known as the air quality certificate, this system is present in more than 25 French cities. It is only applied during peak pollution periods, serves as a rating system, and classifies vehicles according to their year of birth and pollution prevention standards. Other cities have opted for free public transport, which reduces the number of cars on the road. Cleaner" transport has also become more widespread: Paris is progressively modernising its bus network with electricity.

The development of pedestrianised streets

Pedestrianisation is another issue that is being debated in municipal elections. The cities of Montpellier, Nantes and Strasbourg are often cited as examples and now have 22.8, 17.9 and 14.9 kilometres of pedestrianised areas respectively, which corresponds to between 2% and 3% of their urban roads.

Cycling is fashionable!

Secondly, even if France is still far from Holland, some cities have the ambition to use cycling as an important means of transport. The cities of Tours, Strasbourg and Nantes are vying for the podium of the most bike-friendly municipalities.

The democratisation of charging stations

Some cities are also well developed in terms of charging stations: there are around 800 in the Lyon area, and as part of the "Energy Renovation Plan for Buildings", France plans to make it compulsory to install charging stations when new buildings are constructed by 2050.

Towards cleaner housing

Wood-fired heating systems sidelined by the state

The BBC label is awarded to buildings that have low energy consumption for heating, cooling, lighting, hot water and ventilation. Obtaining this label is based on various thresholds that must be met:

  • New homes must not exceed the consumption target of 50kWhep (kilowatt per primary energy/m2 per year)
  • Existing homes must consume less than 50% of the conventional consumption. The consumption target is set at 80 kWhep/m2 per year.
The city of Grenoble has already introduced a "conversion bonus" for heating since 2015. In order to switch to newer and cleaner heating systems, up to €1,200 in subsidies can be granted by the city. Deemed too polluting, wood-burning heating systems are the ones most affected by these measures.

Eco-neighbourhoods are becoming more democratic

In recent years, eco-neighbourhoods have been created in the cities of Paris, Toulouse, Lille and Rennes. All of them have neighbourhoods with the green label (a label guaranteeing a low impact of an actor, good or service on the environment). As an urban development project designed, organised and managed in a sustainable manner, the aim of eco-neighbourhoods is to reduce energy consumption and better protect natural resources. By using natural resources such as biomass or solar energy through photovoltaic panels, eco-neighbourhoods will reduce soil, air and water pollution.

The consequences of open burning of waste

Despite its prohibition, the burning of green waste is still practised and leads to a degradation of air quality in various French regions. Emissions of various pollutants, including fine particles and other carcinogenic compounds, increase health risks.

Solutions that are difficult to put in place

In addition to the prefectures' exemption, the incineration of green waste has been prohibited by the departmental health regulations for many years and can result in a fine of 450 euros. However, it is estimated that 9% of households burn garden waste in the open air (according to a national study by ADEME). Unfortunately, the figures are still high because there is almost no control and the pollution of cities from burning waste is not decreasing.

Public awareness is needed

There are alternative solutions that respect the quality of the air individually or collectively: composting, mulching, shredding, and collecting at waste collection centres. Contrary to popular belief, waste disposal is in fact preferable to open-air burning to improve air quality!

  • Individual composting: organic waste, such as garden waste, grass clippings and food waste can be composted and provide high quality fertiliser. The pre-shredding required for larger plants The pre-crushing required for larger diameter plants can provide wood for aeration. Some communities even offer assistance with the purchase of composters or the provision of personal composters.
  • Mulching mowing : this principle is based on placing the shredded grass directly on the lawn.
  • Mulching : the technique consists of covering the plantation and the soil with shredded organic waste to feed and/or protect them. It prevents weed growth, retains moisture and fertilises the soil. Here, for larger plants, pre-shredding is also necessary. Some communities offer shredder hire or paper shredding services for domestic use. The community can set up shredding areas.
  • Collection at the waste disposal centre or door-to-door selective collection :contrary to all expectations, the level of particles emitted by the burning of vegetation is much higher than the level of particles emitted by the journey to the waste disposal site with, in general, a more or less polluting vehicle.
  • Organic recovery : the collected green waste is transferred to organic recovery platforms.
  • Energy recovery : Creating methane gas from green waste will provide biogas and thus enable the production of heat and/or electricity. Using green waste as fuel is also a feasible idea.

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