In praise of smog: Why the fumes over Paris and Beijing can be secretly, cautiously celebrated

There's a silver lining to these toxic clouds

Share

It is supposed to be spring in Paris, but even as temperatures soar, the arrival of a dense, miserly smog is keeping residents indoors and out of spirits. Windows open briefly. The cloud is so thick that hotels which might normally offer a romantic view of the Eiffel Tower can now only promise lovers the sight of a tall, grey smudge. Measures are being taken. Today, half of the city’s cars were barred from the road by Parisian authorities, as muggy conditions failed to disperse the mostly diesel fumes they pump out into the air – a ban that will continue until the smog lifts. It is, for almost everyone, a nightmare. Everyone, in fact, except the environmentalists.

In terms of public policy, the arrival of smog has upsides. The qualities that make this toxic fog such a pain to live under also offer something of a silver lining. Residents get restless. And whether they mean to or not, anyone who objects to the smoggy flavour at the back of their throat is also objecting – by extension – to the burning of extraordinary amounts of fossil fuels, by Citroens on the one hand, but perhaps more damagingly by heavy industry. For a brief spell, everyone can see, taste and feel one small, gritty effect of the forces that are causing climate change. Even President Hollande must today wade his way to work through an atmosphere carrying double the safe rate of dangerous PH10 particulates.

A burst of climate action in Paris, of course, will not last for long. Parisians might lose some of that notoriously short temper should the right to sit in a traffic jam, in the safety of your own car, not be returned within a week. Moreover, France’s economy is in dire enough straits without further costly attempts to curb emissions: in October last year, a green tax on lorry transport was dropped, after violent demonstrations by truck drivers in Brittany. The Socialists will not retain power in a hurry by promising cleaner air a decade or two down the line.

But smog – albeit at a dear cost – has led to stronger environmental legislation in the past. 12,000 civilian deaths were attributed to the 1952-3 ‘great smog’ in London, which darkened the sun for a week. Masks were issued, but they were useless, and by 1956 the Government had introduced a law requiring major reductions in the burning of coal – and the so-called ‘pea-souper’ was sieved from London skies.

Though few have spotted it so far, air pollution in the UK is once again reaching worrying levels. The EU will hand Westminster a £300 million fine should it fail to meet agreed targets to reduce the amount of atmospheric nitrous dioxide (N02) – a gas accused of causing 29,000 premature deaths a year. And as sunglasses returned to the streets of the capital this weekend, pollution over Greater London simultaneously reached level 9 out of 10 on an official scale.

If hopes that the Government would be ‘the greenest ever’ have proved largely false, all is not lost. In China – the world’s top polluter - smog is harder to ignore. A day on the streets of Beijing equates to smoking 21 cigarettes, and from time to time children are prevented from playing outside. The growing furore led China’s Premier to last week claim that “we will fight pollution with the same determination with which we battled poverty”. Already, China is the world’s largest investor in green energy. Whether its attempts to cut out fossil fuels are more than window-dressing we cannot yet know. But if it does succeed, the smog currently “rubbing its back” over citizens’ window-panes, as T S Eliot famously put it, will have played a noteworthy part.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook  

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Simon Kelner
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage