French expert: ‘Polluters should help state pay for air quality monitoring’

Measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions are not always good news for air quality. [Karen Roe/Flickr]

Societal change will prove just as important as financial investment in the effort to improve air quality. But air quality monitoring is central to this effort, Bernard Garnier told EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement.

Bernard Garnier is the president of Atmo France, the federation of air quality monitoring associations (AASQAs).

The World Health Organisation, the World Bank, Public Health France… A large number of organisations have conducted scientific studies and found that atmospheric pollution is very harmful to human health. Is the question of air quality coming out into the open?

It is true that in the last few years, more and more questions have been raised about air pollution. Citizens are increasingly sensitive to the health consequences of polluted air – especially during pollution peaks. And a growing number of studies link certain pollutants to cancer, not to mention other diseases like Alzheimer’s. We now also see building developers and the tourist industry looking for information on air quality, as well as flooding and seismic activity, before starting their projects. It has become an important criteria.

Do efforts to cut air pollution complement the fight against climate change?

There is confusion surrounding the problems of climate change and air pollution. The two are linked, but sometimes measures introduced to limit greenhouse gas emissions can have a negative effect on air quality.

This is true of wood-fired heating, which can be good for the climate because it uses renewable fuel. But it has to be used in the right conditions, because open chimneys are extremely inefficient and produce tonnes and tonnes of pollutants. Another example is that vehicles were considered clean if they emitted little CO2, so people bought diesel cars without thinking about other pollutants like nitrogen oxides.

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Science is bringing ever more complicated subjects to the table and citizens’ interest is growing. But state funding for air quality monitoring is falling. Are these budgets appropriate, given the health, economic and human costs associated with poor air quality? Are politicians really interested?

We should be precise. As an absolute figure, state funding for air quality monitoring rose from €14.7 million to €15.1m between 2012 and 2016. But when you compare how the budgets of AASQAs have changed, rising from €49 to €55m, the share of funding from the state has dropped from 37% to 30%, and the share from local authorities has fallen from 27% to 20%. At the same time, the share from industry has risen from 38% to 48%.

Today, we are part of the government’s budget line 174, 93% of which is reserved for the miners’ pensions. The rest is used to finance clean air, energy and climate actions. So if the state wants to prove its commitment to acting on air quality, it should start by putting the word “air” in one of its budget lines.

We are being asked to take more and more measures, to carry out studies on unregulated pollutants, like pesticides, pollens and indoor air. But none of the funds we receive from the state are allocated for this. The situation is so serious that a few years ago, a number of AASQAs working in areas near wine and apple producers had to abandon their projects due to a lack of funding. We want to see long-term and multi-year financing, so as not to have to renegotiate the state or local authority contribution every year, for regulated pollutants as well as emerging pollutants.

20 years ago our surveillance of regulated pollutants was limited, with 650 sensors spread out across the country. Today, we also have mobile sensors. But mainly, the work of AASQAs is modelling with IT tools and strategic mapping. This allows local authorities to use our services when drawing up local town plans to improve traffic flow or develop public transport without further damaging air quality. And without claiming to have had feedback from the whole of France, I think we are being listened to more and more.

The share of your budget provided by industry has grown a lot. But where are the farming and transport sectors?

We want the “polluter pays” principle to really be applied in France. When industries participate in our administrative councils, they play the game and give us funding. But they ask what the others are doing…

For several years, as part of the preparation of the finance bill, we have repeatedly told MPs that they need to get all the polluters to pay. The last three French reports on the subject (by the Senate, the Court of Auditors and the National Assembly), have all stressed the need for financing from all the polluting business sectors.

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We could also seek funding from airport or port taxes, or work on the same principle as the National water and aquatic environments office, and tax the pollution that is released into the air. We are not asking for millions, but if we want to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow, our funding has to adapt to new circumstances.

Regional air quality monitoring plans are being prepared for 2017. What themes are emerging?

New challenges concerning pesticides, pollens and indoor air quality are being discussed. We are also looking at improving public information, focussing not on the problems of emissions, but on the public’s exposure to them. This is a preventive measure taken with the participation of developers and public authorities.

And then we need to think about the transmission of the data. Today, we are the main source of data on air quality. But there are more and more mini-sensors developed by start-ups. And why not? But these companies work with data produced by AASQAs.

So one day, if a local authority decides to end its subsidies for an air quality monitoring association because it is cheaper to work with a private company, that would be a bit of a shame. Because if and when the day comes when we have considerably reduced resources, we will also have less data to share with the private companies.

To draw a parallel with medicine, just because you can now take your blood pressure at home, it does not mean that you will no longer go to the doctor for a general health check-up. Today, the most reliable and rigorous sources of data available to the French and international authorities are the air quality monitoring associations.

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