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France is the largest country of Western Europe (211,208 square miles, including the island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean) and one of the most populated (around 60 million people in 2006). Most of the physiography of continental France is dominated by plains and gentle rolling hills, occasionally altered by higher elevations in the central part (Massif Central) and especially in the south (Pyrenees) and the East (Jura and the Alps, where Mont Blanc, at 15,766 feet is the highest peak of the country and of Europe. Climate is generally mild in summer and cool in winter except in the Mediterranean, where it may be quite warm in summer, and in the mountains where cooler conditions predominate.
The main environmental challenges faced by France concern agricultural land use and food security; waste management (including nuclear waste); the growing impacts of energy use, transportation and urbanization; and the need to limit carbon dioxide emissions. With more than 44 million acres, France still has the largest agricultural area of Western Europe. Arable land and pastures, however, are being lost to forests (5 percent expansion between 1992 and 2002) and especially to urbanization (15 percent increase in the same period). In the first decade of the 21st century, the largest population and urban growth rates are being recorded in southern cities such as Perpignan, Narbonne, Montpellier, and Nimes, chosen by a growing number of French people to retire. Sprawl is becoming very common in these cities, and the metropolitan area of Paris is considered the most sprawled urban area of the world.
About 11 percent of the country enjoys some degree of environmental protection. France has about 1,200 protected areas (24 of them in excess of 247,109 acres) and 10 biosphere reserves. In 2006, new legislation was passed to enhance the protection of natural areas with a special emphasis on marine reserves.
Because of the importance of agriculture and the need to preserve the rural landscape, several policies have been implemented in order to contain agricultural decline. The so-called Contracts Territorials d’Exploitation (land use and production contracts) in force since 1999 are addressed to remunerate the various functions performed by agriculture, not just food production, but landscape conservation as well. Agriculture, however, still contributes substatially to water (especially groundwater) pollution. Nearly 30 percent of surface waters have bad or very bad quality levels according to European standards because of high nitrate concentrations, and about one-fifth of the French population drinks water with pesticide residues above the recommended levels of the European Union (EU). In the intensive hog raising areas of Brittany in northwest France, nitrate concentrations often exceed the 50 milligram/liter mark established by the EU. In 2001, the European Comission ruled against France for failing to comply with the Nitrates Directive.
Air pollution remains an important problem in most French cities, especially in Marseilles, Dijon, Montpellier, Lyon, and Paris. Technological improvements such as catalyzers have reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 30 percent and nitrogen dioxides by 10 percent during the 1990s. Nevertheless, increases in mobility, time traveled, diesel vehicles, air conditioning, and private transportation by truck have tended to offset these gains. Hence, some cities are pursuing policies to limit private transportation by car. The Paris City Council, for instance, has multiplied the logistic obstacles for private transportation in the downtown areas, and since 2002 it has added 12 miles of tramway lanes and increased the number of bike routes by 47 percent. Partially as a result of these policies, car transportation decreased by 14 percent between 2001 and 2005. The decline in coal mining and heavy manufacturing in the eastern regions has eased the acid rain problem that used to be very acute in Alsace and Lorraine.
Industrial hazards, however, persist and become more dangerous as urbanization progresses into formerly segregated dangerous activities. In September 2001, an explosion in a ammonium nitrate factory in Toulouse caused 30 deaths and extensive damage in nearby areas. This accident, together with the impact of natural hazards such as the heat wave of 2003 (responsible for as many as 30,000 deaths, especially among the elderly) and the numerous flooding problems of the Mediterranean rivers prompted the law on Risk Prevention and Mitigation of 2003.
France has 58 nuclear power plants (second in the world after the United States), which provide around 75 percent of all electricity generated in the country. While the dependency on fossil fuels is thus reduced, the country has not made substantial efforts in the development of alternative energy sources. While nuclear power is generally acceptanced by the French public, the country still fears that it will be unable to meet the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (54 million tons by 2010) targeted in the Kyoto Protocol. To date, how to solve the issue of nuclear waste is still being debated.
Several French companies such as Suez-Lyonnaise-des-Eaux and Vivendi Environnement rank among the most important in the world in the provision of environmental goods and services. Both companies maintain leadership positions in urban water supply and wastewater management of cities in the United States, Spain, Germany, Japan, and Latin America.
- Michael D. Bess, Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (University of Chicago Press, 2003);
- Miles Hayes, Black Tides (University of Texas Press, 2000);
- Eric Montpetitl, Misplaced Distrust: Policy Networks and the Environment in France, the United States, and Canada (University of British Columbia Press, 2003).