BBC Capital

Parisian lights grow dim

Runners have found it challenging to train amid Paris' peak smog levels. (Getty Images)

Runners have found it challenging to train amid Paris' peak smog levels. Now, the French government is unveiling measures to curb the air pollution. (Getty Images)

Parisian Nathalie Jourdan didn’t think twice about going on her weekly Sunday morning run in mid-March even though the French capital had experienced record air pollution.

She will next time, though.

“My throat felt irritated and dry, something I’d never felt before when jogging,” she said. “About half our group didn’t show up that day because of the pollution.”

Air pollution hit new highs in March, nearly five times the annual average level recorded in London and nearly six times that of Los Angeles. The peaks were characterised by high levels of fine particles, whose ability to penetrate deeply into the lungs makes them the most dangerous type of air pollutant.

Diesel fuel has been the crux of the problem, though increased use of wood fires have also exacerbated the crisis. France subsidises diesel to the tune of 7b euro per year — making it substantially cheaper at the pump. Two-thirds of all French cars and almost all of its trucks run on diesel. Diesel engines emit a whopping 4,000% more fine particles and 72% more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than gasoline engines, according to the EU’s 2012 Emission Inventory Guidebook. What’s more, the WHO classified diesel engines as carcinogenic in 2012.

Tackling the problem

After much criticism for doing too little, too late, Parisian officials appear to be tackling the problem head-on. Christophe Najdovski, the city’s deputy mayor for transport, is set to unveil a five-step plan to fight pollution on 19 May. The measures include free parking and free public transport to keep vehicles off the road.

In the long term, this plan aims to rid the city of diesel vehicles by eliminating diesel buses by 2020 and encouraging motorists to make the switch to cars that run on petrol by banning diesel vehicles in the city.

“Making the city diesel-free by 2020 is the central element of our plan,” he said. “We want Paris to be a low-emission zone.”

A bill that attacks France’s sacrosanct pro-diesel policies was submitted in the French senate on 5 May. If passed, it would create a 500 euro tax on new diesel vehicles and a scrappage scheme for heavily polluting older diesel vehicles.

City of lights? Or city of smog? Paris air pollution hit peak levels in March.

City of lights? Or city of smog? Paris air pollution hit peak levels in March.

The costs of pollution to France are very real. The French government estimates air pollution costs the country between 28b and 30b euro per year in healthcare and missed work days. Given the Paris region accounts for about 30% of the country’s gross domestic product, the economic impact is certainly not to be taken lightly.

Diesel isn’t the only culprit. Industry, agriculture and heating all add to the emissions problem, according to the French environmental federation France Nature Environnement. Since 2000, France has seen the use of wood to fire stoves, heaters and plain old chimneys surge more than 25% in the face of the uptick in energy prices. This has only added to the smog.

“I’d definitely say I’ve been using the fireplace more and more to save on heating bills in recent winters,” said Christian, a music teacher in his 50s who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons.

Parisians including Lola Swyer are paying the price. Her ten-year-old daughter suffered her first asthma attack just after the March pollution peak and required hospital treatment. “I couldn’t believe it. The unit was full of children with aerosol masks,” she said. “The doctor told us they had never dealt with so many asthma attacks before.”

While the good faith efforts of the city and government are a start, the grimy horizon suggests the city still has a long way to go.

“Being able to see the cloud of smog enveloping the city in March made people aware how serious the problem really is,” Najdovski said.

Jourdan, for one, will be more careful before venturing out for a jog in the pollution. “I think next time I’ll give it a pass. It’s not worth the hacking cough.”

The costs of pollution to France are very real.