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ENVIRONMENT

French court fines government record sum over air pollution

France's top administrative court on Wednesday fined the government a record sum for failing to reduce air pollution to acceptable levels.

French court fines government record sum over air pollution
View of Paris during a surge in pollution in December 2016. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP.

The Council of State slapped its highest fine ever, €10 million, on President Emmanuel Macron’s government, warning it would do so again within months if the authorities failed to act quickly to combat smog.

The Court, which has become increasingly watchful over the government’s environmental record, said measures decided by the government were insufficient to improve air quality, because some might not actually be implemented, and their likely effects had not been properly evaluated.

Last year, the Council ruled that the government had failed to implement a court order dating from 2017 to curb air pollution levels, and gave it six months to take corrective action or face a €10 million fine every six months until air quality improves.

With the six-month deadline having elapsed, the Council is now implementing its threat.

Air pollution is believed to cause 40,000 premature deaths in France per year.

READ ALSO Why we need to get used to summer storms and floods in France

The Court said that pollution by nitrogen dioxide – produced by fossil fuel combustion, notably by cars – was still excessive in five urban areas: Paris, Lyon, Marseille-Aix, Toulouse and Grenoble.

It also singled out Paris for persistently high levels of PM10 micro particle pollution.

The Court said it will examine air pollution levels again at the start of 2022 and could impose another fine which could come in “above or below” the latest one, depending on the outcome.

The Council said the fine issued Wednesday would be mostly shared among various anti-air pollution agencies.

NGO Friends of the Earth, which launched the pollution lawsuit against the government, will get 100,000 euros, the judges ruled.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.

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