Air pollution costs France €100 billion per year

Air pollution in Paris. [Alberto Hernández/Flickr]

The French Senate has called for new efforts to tackle air pollution, arguing it inflates healthcare costs, reduces economic productivity and agricultural yields, and has put Paris in the EU’s bad books. EURACTIV France reports

A Committee of Inquiry in the French Senate has described air pollution as an “economic aberration”. The committee’s proposals to reduce the phenomenon, which costs France over €100 billion every year, include raising the tax on diesel and taxing emissions of the worst polluting substances.

In the report entitled “Air pollution: the cost of inaction”, published on Wednesday 15 July, the Senate committee estimated the annual cost of air Pollution in France at €101.3 billion.

While overall air pollution has fallen in recent years, “the nature of the pollution has changed”. Rather than localised industrial pollution, today’s problem is more diffuse, caused by transport, heating and agriculture, the report said.

Particle pollution is responsible for 42,000 premature deaths each year in France alone, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Senate report put the health related cost of air pollution in France (medical treatments, premature death, absenteeism, etc.) at “between €68 and €96 billion”, and the non-health related cost (decline in agricultural yield, degradation of buildings, preventative expenditure, etc.) at €4.3 billion.

According to Leïla Aïchi, the Senate’s rapporteur, these costs tend to be “largely underestimated”. She said that the negative health effects of certain pollutants are also not fully understood, particularly the potential “cocktail effect” of inhaling multiple substances, and added that France had fallen behind with its research on the issue.

The French transport sector alone produces 59% of the country’s nitrogen oxide and up to 19% of its fine particle emissions.

In order to bring these under control, the senators called for “truly ecological taxation”. This approach would see the establishment of taxes on emissions of nitrogen, nitrogen oxide and fine particles, as well as improvements to existing emissions standards.

The European Commission is currently pursuing an infringement procedure against France for ignoring the fine particle limits in place in certain areas.

Economic opportunity

The report, adopted unanimously by the French Senate, recommends putting an end to the “persistent ambiguity of the public authorities” by aligning the tax on diesel and petrol for transport by 2020 and axing the VAT reduction for fuel and electricity used by hybrid and electric vehicles.

The committee also recommended opening an inquiry into the specific causes of the high death rate among farmers and how best to limit emissions from the agriculture sector, as well as developing a labelling system for products that emit volatile pollutants.

In response to criticism over the negative impact these measures might have for the economy and jobs, Leïla Aïchi said she considered it “inappropriate […] to consider the environment and health as variables of economic adjustment”.

She added that France must “turn this environmental constraint into an economic opportunity”.

According to the Senate committee, efforts to cut air pollution to date have saved France €11 billion. 

Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10 and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.

The 2008 Air Quality Directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is now under review.

The directive obliges member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.

Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia (NH3) by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.

Health advocates say the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.

Part of the package is the Nation Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. It sets post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).

In June 2015, EU environment ministers demanded flexibility in meeting the NEC directive's air quality targets, after dropping a cap on methane emissions from draft pollution rules. Governments were split on whether the proposed reduction goals for 2030 should be legally binding or non-binding. Poland demanded the targets be pushed back to 2040 and Hungary said the bill should be scrapped, while others called for review clauses to be inserted in the legislation.

>> Read: Environment ministers want flexible air pollution targets

  • September: Council and Parliament expected to adopt position on draft NEC Directive.

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