Karine Léger, head of Airparif, was in Southeast Asia in early October to take part in a regional cycle of discussion of ideas on the theme: “A liveable and sustainable city”. She revisits the major issues affecting cities today, from Paris to Hanoi.
The aim of the Airparif association, which is approved by the Ministry of Environment, is to measure air quality in the Île-de-France region. What is your role in relation to policymakers and citizens?
In France, air quality monitoring is entrusted to independent associations such as ours. Their mission is to monitor pollution levels and anticipate peaks to support decision-makers – from diagnosis to assessment of the effectiveness of proposed action plans. Our role is also to inform citizens and support innovation to improve air quality.
Elsewhere in the world, many major cities have also set up monitoring and information systems, particularly in Europe, following the 1996 directive on air quality and the rational use of energy. They generally depend on municipalities, regions or the state. It is rare for monitoring to be entrusted, as it is in France, to an independent association bringing together all the stakeholders within its board of directors. Our governance model is quite unique: the state, local authorities, economic players and environmental and consumer protection associations all have an equal say.
As head of Airparif, you are at the forefront of urban developments. What major challenges do you see?
The major challenge is undoubtedly urbanisation itself. According to the United Nations, by 2050 two in three people will live in cities. These urban areas, with very high population densities, are also the most exposed to heavy pollution. We are building the city of tomorrow: depending on what we decide, cities will have more or less of an impact on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. They will be more or less resilient, more or less durable – in a word, more or less liveable!
Hence the major challenges of limiting urban sprawl, mobility and the development of alternative modes of transport to motor vehicles, and even construction, both to limit pollutant emissions (via heating or air conditioning) and to limit the exposure of occupants to these pollutants.
The Smart City movement demonstrates this: innovation is part of the development of a sustainable city. Can these solutions help the fight for cleaner air?
While technology alone cannot solve the challenges of air pollution, it is an essential building block – complementing regulation and behavioural change. The market for pollution remediation and monitoring, in particular with the miniaturisation of sensors, is developing rapidly. For decision-makers, it is a matter of assessing the real effectiveness of proposed solutions.
With its partners Airparif has set up Airlab, an accelerator of innovative solutions for air quality. Its objective is to stimulate innovation, as well as to evaluate its costs and benefits. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant and measure the environmental impact of innovative solutions, whether this is data storage or the risk of device obsolescence, in particular inexpensive sensors with a very limited service life.
Can Île-de-France be seen as a model?
It is true that Île-de-France has many advantages internationally. The region is contrasted with, on the one hand, the greater Paris area – with densities comparable to those of some Asian cities – and, on the other hand, a rural area and in particular a forest area.
Certain local initiatives have been widely publicised abroad, in particular the closure of roads along banks of the river Seine in the city of Paris, which constituted an urban motorway in the heart of the capital, and the creation of a low emission zone covering 79 municipalities within the Greater Paris Metropolitan Area. Internationally, the Regional Council has historically cooperated with and supported Hanoi, in particular in the fight against air pollution in association with the French Development Agency.
Improving urban environments is now an international issue. Do different countries respond in the same way?
Quality of life, especially air pollution, is a concern for all major cities. It plays a major role in their attractiveness, whether for tourists or economically, and creates an increasingly strong rivalry between cities. Despite this, prioritising quality of life has a similar history across the world: in Europe, the measures aimed at limiting traffic in London, Oslo or Paris are more than 20 years old. Awareness is more recent in China, like in Beijing or Shanghai. But the actions now being implemented are far-reaching – in response to the demands of the people and the desire to have a positive image internationally.
Some regions are just beginning to address the issue. This is particularly the case in Southeast Asia, where people are becoming increasingly vocal, especially during increasingly high-profile episodes of pollution. In Hanoi, traffic around Hoan Kiem Lake is now banned over the weekend. Awareness often results in the establishment, or strengthening, of an official monitoring and information system. The media, citizens and NGOs are also looking to implement measures: a whole market of low-cost sensors is emerging in response to these demands.
Karine Léger was in Asia – in Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Bangkok, from 5-13 October 2019 as part of a regional cycle of discussion of ideas entitled: “Sustainable City, Liveable City”.
This round of discussions was created in a collaboration between the Institut français, the Institut français in Thailand, the Institut français in Vietnam and the Alliance française in Kuala Lumpur.
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