2. Improving air quality in Paris



To tackle air pollution in the city, the Mayor of Paris provided strong city-level leadership, leading to a diverse range of policies and actions that radically altered the travel behaviour of residents and businesses, including a low emission zone in the city centre.





Council of Paris adopts the updated Paris climate and energy action plan 2012–2017, which includes the proposal for a low emission zone.


Paris signs the Compact of Mayors, with 228 cities pledging to cut carbon emissions.


Anne Hidalgo takes office as Mayor of Paris and announces plans for a low emission zone and the intention to ban all diesel vehicles from Paris by 2020.


The low emission zone is introduced in Paris.


Paris is awarded the World Wildlife Fund’s title of Global Earth Hour Capital 2016.


Mayor of Paris takes over as chair of C40.


All vehicles entering Paris city centre must display a Crit’Air sticker to show their level of pollution.


At the start of the century, diesel- and petrol-powered vehicles were the main source of air pollution in Paris, contributing to high levels of air pollution and a range of subsequent health harms.

In 2001, the newly elected Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, proposed to reduce vehicle traffic within the city to reduce pollution and improve residents’ quality of life.

Delanoë extended and reinforced these ambitions in 2007 through the Paris climate action plan, which included an objective to reduce transport emissions in the city by 60% between 2001 and 2020. The plan included the creation of 700km of cycle routes, subsidised bike and electric moped purchases, a new bike rental scheme called Velib’, an electric car rental scheme called Autolib’ and incentives for citizens and businesses to dispose of their old cars.

The intervention

In 2009, a new national environment law paved the way for a low emission zone scheme in France. The Parisian authorities explored the feasibility of such a scheme but rejected it on several social and economic grounds. However, in 2012 the refreshed Paris climate and energy action plan recognised more ambitious measures would be needed to achieve the 60% reduction in transport emissions by 2020. The updated plan proposed a range of new measures, including lower speed limits, making it easier to walk and cycle, and introducing a low emission zone to restrict the most polluting vehicles from the city.

When the new mayor, Anne Hidalgo, took office in 2014, she announced her intention to implement the low emission zone and to ban all diesel vehicles from the city centre by 2020. After extensive consultation with the French government, businesses and citizens, the mayor’s Air pollution control plan passed into law in 2015 and Paris became the first low emission zone in France. All vehicles must now display a ‘Crit’Air’ windscreen sticker to indicate the vehicle’s level of pollution, and the most-polluting vehicles have restricted access to the city centre.


The main air pollution target of the 2012 Paris climate and energy action plan was to reduce traffic-related emissions by 60% between 2012 and 2020. A monitoring committee oversees progress against the plan’s targets, and the city authorities regularly assess pollution levels, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption across Paris. This monitoring and evaluation suggests the policies are having a positive impact – for example:

  • By 2014, average levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates had fallen by 50%, suggesting the city was on track to meet its target.
  • Active travel has risen and car use has decreased. For example, by 2009 cycle journeys had doubled and annual metro journeys had risen by 16%. A new tramline was linked to a 50% reduction in private car use on that route, and across the city centre car traffic has fallen substantially.
  • The adoption of similar schemes across France has boosted the French auto manufacturing industry, with Renault selling the largest number of electric vehicles in Europe, ahead of Nissan and Smart.

However, air pollution remains a problem. As recently as June 2017, Paris had to implement its emergency pollution control plans when air pollution exceeded the threshold of 50mcg of particles per cubic metre of air.

Lessons learned

What worked well

Long-term, high-level political leadership and the ability to influence a wide range of stakeholders enabled the Parisian authorities to plan and implement an ambitious range of environmental measures over many years.

What worked less well

While Mayor Hidalgo’s measures have generally been supported by the Parisian people, as the restrictions increase the authorities may need to engage more with citizens and other stakeholders to ensure their continued support. For example, Mayor Hidalgo said she has not tried to ‘sell’ the changes to Parisians, but rather has sought to demonstrate their impact. Commentators have suggested this approach has led to the media remaining ambivalent about Hidalgo’s pollution measures, rather than offering active support.

Enforcement of the low emission zone was under-resourced and only a few fines were handed out in 2017. This may have undermined the scheme. However, since 2018, 2,000 staff members have become responsible for enforcing the zone, which may enhance compliance and drive further improvements in air quality.

Implications for the UK

Success in Paris can be attributed to a mix of carrot-and-stick policies. For example, improved conditions for walking and cycling, better public transport, financial incentives and greater access to electric vehicles all incentivised Parisians to travel sustainably, while increasingly stringent vehicle restrictions discouraged many Parisians from using their cars.

Similarly, carrot-and-stick policies to tackle pollution have been proposed or implemented in the UK, including a diesel scrappage scheme, fiscal policies to disincentivise new purchases of diesel cars, and vehicle charges in the most polluted cities.,

As in France, promoting sustainable travel in the UK may have wider social and economic benefits, such as boosting jobs in the green technology industries.

As vehicle-related pollution fell in Paris, wood burning became a more prominent source of emissions. To mitigate this in the UK, the government could grant powers to localities to ban wood and coal burning in areas with poor air quality and put tougher controls on the sale of wood-burning stoves, with only low-emission versions allowed. The Mayor of London has already called for this action.

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