France’s environment under great pressure

France is “highly vulnerable” to natural and technological disasters, says a report issued by a leading French Institute. Increasing international traffic through France coupled with a rise in national energy consumption, CO2 emissions and air and road transport means that the country is placing greater pressures on its environment.

Car journeys continue to account for the majority of domestic transport in France, says the report, L’Environnement en France, issued by the French Institute for the Environment (IFEN). In 2000, 84% of distances covered by the population were by car. Fuel price increases have prompted people to use railways more, but the number of cars on French roads has continued to rise by an average of 2.3% per year. Air transport increased by 6.6% per year between 1995 and 2000.

Over the past decade France has seen a sharp increase in freight transport by road while rail freight transport has stagnated. The 76% increase in freight traffic through the Pyrenees since 1993 has been predominantly due to trucks – rail accounted for only 6% of all trans-Pyrenean freight traffic in 1999.

The north of France continues to suffer from poor water quality and acid rain deposits. Over-fishing in the Atlantic is still a major problem, with 40% of stocks being fished at four times their sustainable rate.

IFEN’s report also charts France’s journey through a series of environmental crises such as hurricanes, flooding, the fire in the Mont-Blanc Tunnel, the Toulouse chemical plant explosion and the oil spill from the tanker Erika, which caused extensive damage despite releasing less than 20,000 tonnes of oil.

The good news is that demand for eco-products has risen sharply and EU Directives appear to be taking effect, particularly in the areas of water, air pollution and waste collection. Densely populated areas of France have waste collections up to three times a week, with some areas collecting up to eight different materials separately. France is seeing “the beginning of decoupling of economic activities from their impact on the environment.”

IFEN is also about to publish a bilingual report on sustainable development indicators (SDIs) in France. Following a period of consultation with universities, businesses and NGOs, the Institute is drawing up some 40 SDIs complete with comments from authorities in each subject area. The report will cover issues such as sustainable and eco-efficient growth; managing and passing on land, water and species resources; addressing social and geographical inequalities; applying the precautionary principle to chemicals and radioactive waste and adapting to unforeseeable circumstances.

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