Is Germany to blame for the Paris smog?

After a steep rise in air pollution levels last week led to drastic action by Paris authorities, people are asking what was to blame for the dirty air. And some have pointed the finger at Germany.

Is Germany to blame for the Paris smog?
Is that pollution from German coal power stations blowing towards Paris? Photo: AFP

Was Germany really to blame for the fact that half of motorists in Paris were not able to use their cars on Monday? Or for the €16 million hole in state coffers due to authorities making public transport free?

The driving curbs were imposed by city chiefs in the capital to try to tackle last week’s soaring pollution levels, which they said were posing a risk to the public's health.

The problem was caused by the number of fine polluting particles in the air, which are dangerous as they can get deep into the lungs and the blood system and cause respiratory problems and other serious health problems including cancer.

But some have suggested that Paris traffic was not the only dirty-air culprit.

Questions have been asked over whether it is also linked to Germany's increased use of coal power stations after Berlin decided to phase out the use of nuclear energy in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Writing in the financial newspaper Les Echos this week writer Didier Julienne, a specialist in natural resources, said: “On European maps of particle pollution this week, the winds from the east, coming from Germany, are heavily laden with particles."

The writer pointed to the "unfavourable environmental situation" in Germany because of the increased use of coal powered stations, especially those in the west, near the borders with France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

“Effectively Germany is smoking us out,” Julienne said, adding that the last few days are an ominous sign of what is to come.

“For the last two weeks we were introduced to the air that risks being ours over the coming years. A kind of Chinese air," he said. He concluded that trying to limit the use of French cars is not as useful as asking the Germans to close down their power stations.

The wind blows both ways

But is Germany really to blame? Representatives from Germany’s environment ministry admitted to Le Figaro that coal production had increased dramatically in recent years, but insisted that new power stations were less polluting.

“The scenario of massive air pollution coming from Germany seems unlikely to us,” the ministry said.

A scientist from Germany’s Federal Institute for the Environment also doubted Germany was to blame for the Parisian smog and made the point that the wind blows both ways.

Air specialist Marion Wichmann-Fiebig said coal-power stations were responsible for ten percent of the emissions of the fine polluting particles.

“We are also subject to pollution coming from Poland, or even France. In one year our systems calculate that our exchanges of polluting particles are about even,” she said.

Le Monde newspaper notes a 2011 study by Airparif, which monitors air quality in France and looked at the origin of PM2.5 particles in France. These are considered the most dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and the blood system.

The survey concluded that 51 percent of the polluting particles came from local traffic, notably the notoriously dirty ring road the Périphérique. However, it also found that 39 percent of the PM2.5 particles came from neighbouring countries.

But Airparif’s president Bernard Felix poured cold water on the idea that Germany was to blame for the pollution spike.

“The imports of fine particles from abroad are very variable depending on the wind. For two days out of three, in the Ile-de-France region, we have winds from the north-west. Winds from the east are rarer. Most of the pollution episode that we had did not come from Germany,” he said.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Paris faces legal claim over lead pollution from Notre-Dame fire

Paris authorities have been accused of failing to safeguard the health of people living near Notre-Dame cathedral due to lead pollution from a devastating fire two years ago.

Paris faces legal claim over lead pollution from Notre-Dame fire
A complaint has been lodged over lead pollution in Paris from the devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral Photo: Fabien Barrau | AFP

Local families along with the Paris branch of the CGT trade union and the anti-pollution association Henri Pezerat, have filed the legal complaint alleging city and public health authorities endangered lives.

“Despite the scale of the fire and knowledge about the risk of pollution and contamination… no precaution in particular was taken by the authorities involved for more than three months after the fire,” according to a copy of the complaint seen by AFP.

It says 400 tonnes of lead from the roof of the Gothic masterpiece melted or were dispersed as microparticles over the French capital during the blaze on April 15, 2019.

“Children (in crèches and schools), neighbours and workers have clearly been exposed to the risk of lead” pollution, the complaint adds. “These facts amount to the crime of endangering the lives of others.”

The square in front of the cathedral was closed again to the public in May this year after tests revealed high concentrations of toxic lead particles.

Several months after the fire, city authorities ordered a deep-clean of schools in the area, while children and pregnant women were urged to have blood tests.

The complaint says the city withheld information from school directors and failed to act promptly. It also targets the police department, the culture ministry and regional health authorities.

The efforts of firefighters ensured the great medieval edifice survived the fire despite the collapse of the spire and much of the roof being destroyed.

But the lead risks delayed work on clearing debris and launching the restoration effort for the landmark, which President Emmanuel Macron wants open for visitors in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blaze, but they have said an accident, possibly caused by a short circuit or discarded cigarette butt, remains the most likely explanation.