Air pollution - State and impacts (France)

SOER 2010 Common environmental theme (Deprecated)
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SOER Common environmental theme from France
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 11 May 2020

Changes in air quality in French conurbations

In France, air quality monitoring has been stepped up since 2000. The measures adopted have made it possible to calculate an annual growth index for air pollution. This index enables figures to be placed on the changes in concentrations of the four pollutants most closely monitored to date: SO2, NO2, O3 and PM10­. The calculations are based on background data from all urban areas in Metropolitan France (excluding Corsica).

Overall, air quality in France’s towns and cities is improving. With the exception of a marked increase in 2003 caused by unusual weather conditions during the summer, the global index of air pollution fell by 20 % during the period 2000-2009. A decrease in SO2 has made a major contribution to  improving the global index of air quality. Between 2000 and 2009, the SO­2 index fell by 65 %. In contrast, O3 has increased and remains above the 2000 level. The NO2 index is slightly down (-14 %), while the PM10­ index shows no significant trend.

Air pollution index, by pollutant, in Metropolitan France (excluding Corsica)


The Air Quality Index

France has a substantial air quality monitoring network, developed since the introduction of the Law on Air and the Rational Use of Energy[1] in 1996. Numerous measurements have been taken by the Approved Air Quality Monitoring Associations[2], which means that the public can be informed about air quality at local level and the necessary procedures can be triggered in the event of any risk to health. These measurements are disseminated on a daily basis through the Air Quality Index for conurbations with over one million inhabitants. The Air Quality Index is calculated on the basis of SO2, NO2, O3 and PM10­ levels. The following are links to dynamic maps by conurbation, indicating the number of days when the AQI is (1) good or very good (2) average or mediocre or (3) poor or very poor:


·         Map, by conurbation, indicating the number of days when the AQI is "good or very good"

·         Map, by conurbation, indicating the number of days when the AQI is "average or mediocre"

·         Map, by conurbation, indicating the number of days when the AQI is "poor or very poor"


Air pollution by particulates (PM10)

Particulates consist of fine liquids (fogs) or solids (dust, smoke) in the ambient air, emitted directly or resulting from chemical reactions. They may be naturally occurring or the consequence of human activities. Particulates of industrial origin often contain heavy metals (cadmium, nickel and chrome) and those produced by motor vehicles are composed of carbonaceous elements, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and sulphates. The effects of particulates, particularly on human health, vary depending on their size and physical/chemical composition.

Between 1990 and 2008, PM10 emissions fell by 33.7 %. This was due to improvements in industrial dust control and biomass combustion technologies and an end to open cast mining (2002) and underground mining (2004). In 2008, the heaviest emitters of PM10­ in France were agriculture and forestry (34.7 %), the manufacturing industry (29.1 %), the residential-tertiary sector (21.8 %) and road transport (10.7 %).


PM10** emissions in Metropolitan France, by sector

Fine particulates (PM2.5)

There are two types of fine particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5 µm (PM2.5) primary or secondary. Primary particulates may be of natural origin or man-made. Between 1990 and 2008, PM2.5 emissions fell by 40.5 %. In 2008, PM2.5 emissions came mainly from the residential/tertiary sector (34.1 %), industry* (29.4 %), agriculture and forestry (20.5%) and road transport (12 %). Within these sectors the emissions are partly due to combustion and partly to the operation of quarries, construction sites, building and public works and soil tillage. The secondary particulates form in the air as a result of a chemical reaction with precursor pollutants such as sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ammonia and VOCs.

* Industrial emissions include those associated with waste treatment.


Indoor air quality

France has set up an Indoor Air Quality Observatory[3] to gain a better understanding of indoor pollution with a view to producing recommendations on improving indoor air quality. The OQAI also plays a role in determining regulatory measures. In 2003-2005, the OQAI produced an initial report on air quality in 567 French homes which were representative of 24 million residences in Metropolitan France (excluding Corsica). In 2010, as part of its programme on “Living Spaces Frequented by Children” the OQAI began a national investigation at 2 000 schools and 1 000 nurseries.


Emissions of acid pollutants

In France, ammonia (NH3) is currently the main source of acidification, representing over half of all emissions (53.3 % in 2008). Although mainly produced by agriculture, nitrogen oxides (NOX) from road transport contribute a third of the pollution. Between 1990 and 2008, acid emissions fell by 36 % and NH3 emissions by 5 %.


Emissions of acid pollutants in Metropolitan France

Emissions of acid pollutants in Metropolitan France

* Acid equivalent (Aeq) represents the total quantity of substances released into the atmosphere which contribute to acidification in terrestrial, air and water environments. It is calculated by weighting the emissions of each pollutant with a coefficient representing its acidification potential: SO2: 0.0313; NOX: 0.0217; NH3: 0.0588

Source: Citepa, Coralie, Secten format (updated April 2010)


Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is mainly produced by the burning of fossil fuels containing sulphur (coal, fuel oil, diesel oil) and in some industrial processes. In 2008, SO2 air emissions in Metropolitan France amounted to 358 000 tonnes, compared with 1.34 million tonnes in 1990 and 3.2 million tonnes in 1980.

This reduction in SO2 emissions can be explained by a number of factors:

   §  The introduction of the nuclear electricity programme since 1980 (-89 %), which has led to a reduction in fossil fuel consumption, energy savings and the use of less sulphurous fuels           

   §   The use of fuels with reduced sulphur content and improvements in the energy efficiency of industrial installations between 1990 and 2008 (-73 %).

The main contributors to this reduction have been road transport (-97 %), the residential/tertiary sector (-74 %) and the manufacturing industry (-73 %).

France’s international commitments require a reduction in SO2 emissions. The Gothenburg Protocol (1 December 1999) set a new maximum emissions level for France of 400 000 tonnes by 2010. The European Directive of 23 October 2001[4] set an emissions ceiling of 375 000 tonnes to be met by 2010. To meet these commitments, France plans to use technology to limit the sulphur content of liquid fuels, while also reducing the emission limits for fuel-burning installations.

Sulphur dioxide emissions in Metropolitan France (1990-2008)

In 2008, NOX emissions in France amounted to 1 272 000 tonnes, a reduction of 34 % since 1990.

Road transport accounted for 52% of nitrogen oxide emissions, followed by agriculture and forestry (14.2 %) and the manufacturing industry (12.5 %). The relative contribution of transport has been decreasing since 1993, with the introduction of the catalytic converter.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen in all sectors apart from the residential/tertiary sectors, where they have remained steady, and other forms of transport, where there has been a slight increase. By far the greatest improvement has been in the road transport sector (-42 % since 1990). Emissions have fallen by 34 % in the energy conversion sector, by 34 % in the manufacturing industry and by 17.4 % in agriculture and forestry. However, further efforts to reduce emissions are still needed in order for France to achieve its emissions commitments for 2010:(860 000 tonnes under the Gothenburg Protocol and 810 000 tonnes under the National Emission Ceilings Directive 2001/81/EC).

 Emissions of nitrogen oxides in Metropolitan France (1990-2008)

Emissions of non-methane VOCs

Non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs have a number of adverse effects on health and some are toxic or carcinogenic. NMVOCs are also involved in the process of ozone formation in the lower atmosphere. NMVOCs, which are present in fuels and in many commonly-used products containing solvents, are emitted by combustion or evaporation.

In 2008, emissions of NMVOCs in Metropolitan France were estimated at 1.086 million tonnes. The main sectors responsible are manufacturing (31.4 %) and the residential/tertiary sector (31.1 %). Since 1990, NMVOC emissions have fallen by 60 % due to a reduction in emissions from road transport (-85 %), energy conversion (-69 %), residential/tertiary (-49 %) and manufacturing
(-44 %). The marked drop in emissions is the result of progress made in the storage and distribution of hydrocarbons, the introduction of the catalytic converter and the increasing proportion of diesel vehicles.

Although France has met its commitment under the Geneva Protocol to reduce emissions of NMVOCs by 30 % between 1998 and 1999, further work needs to be done to achieve the target set under the National Emission Ceilings Directive 2001/81/EC (1.05 million tonnes by 2010).

 Emissions of NMVOCs in Metropolitan France (1990-2008)

Critical loads on ecosystems

Critical ozone levels for plant protection

High ozone concentrations can affect the physiological processes of plants and reduce plant productivity. AOT40 (Accumulated over Threshold of 40 ppb) is an indicator of plants’ exposure risk to ozone. The highest ozone levels were recorded in rural stations in the south and east of France. These stations exceeded the AOT40 target level for plants (18 000 µg/m³.h average over 5 years). This is explained by a combination of factors favouring ozone production in these regions: high levels of sunlight, traffic and industry conducive to the formation of precursors. In contrast, the west of the country shows generally lower levels of exposure to ozone.


Distribution of AOT40* target value for plants at rural stations in France (average 2005-2009)

Critical acid loads

The critical acid load is the maximum deposition quantity of acidifying compounds which will not cause irreversible damage to ecosystems. It is calculated for each ecosystem and varies geographically. In Europe, following the reduction in emissions and depositions of acid pollutants, it is estimated that in 2005 less than 8 % of surfaces were subjected to acid deposition exceeding the critical loads. In France, it is estimated that almost 10 % of ecosystems suffered acid deposition in excess of the critical loads in 2005. Acid deposits are higher in the north of the country.


[1] Loi sur l’air et l’utilisation rationnelle de l’énergie - LAURE

[2] Associations agréées de surveillance de la qualité de l’air - AASQA

[3] Observatoire de la Qualité de l’Air Intérieure - OQAI

[4] DIRECTIVE 2001/80/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 23 October 2001 on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants





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The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

Filed under: SOER2010, air pollution
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