A cloud of smog has enveloped Paris – and on Friday air pollution levels were actually worse than notoriously smoggy Beijing. The French capital is taking emergency measures to reduce air pollution – over the weekend the city made public transportation, bike sharing and electric car sharing free, and starting Monday private cars and motorcycles with even registration numbers will be banned. 700 police officers are stationed at checkpoints issuing $31 (€22) fines for violators. Electric vehicles, hybrids and cars carrying at least three people are exempt.

While Monday’s air quality is improving in parts of the city, a check of the Real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) still finds “hazardous” levels of air pollution at Boulevard Haussmann in the eighth and ninth arrondissements. The fine particulate (PM2.5) index value of 880 is dangerous, and authorities have warned that “everyone may experience more serious health effects.”

Green Halo - Paris Air Quality Worse Than BeijingExperts blame last week’s unsafe pollution levels — the worst in France since 2007 — on a combination of unseasonable warm and sunny days and cool nights with low wind speeds and precipitation. These factors kept toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide near the ground instead of dissipating into the atmosphere.

France’s extensive use of diesel fuel is being scrutinized as a contributing factor to the unhealthy levels of air pollution. An estimated 60 percent of French vehicles use diesel-powered engines, and in 2011 70 percent of French car sales were diesel. Since World War II the French government has subsidized the use of diesel and there is a powerful corporate diesel lobby. The problem with diesel is that while it reduces carbon emissions compared to gasoline-powered engines, it increases fine particulates that cause air pollution. The World Health Organization has also found that diesel fumes are carcinogenic.

To curb pollution, authorities in Paris and the Île-de-France region surrounding the capital will also be lowering the speed limit, urging people to not burn wood in their fireplaces, requesting that trucks with heavy loads avoid traveling around the city, and asking factories to work on a reduced schedule to cut back on emissions.

Extreme smoggy conditions also hit northern and eastern regions of France, with the smog belt extending to Belgium and Germany. Similar pollution-reducing measures such as free public transportation have also been implemented in other European cities.

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