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ENVIRONMENT

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

The world is heating up, and France is no exception. Here is how the country plans to change the landscape of its cities in order to cope with ever-increasing heatwaves.

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves
A person next to the Eiffel Tower holds a smartphone indicating a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius in 2019 (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

While the whole of France is suffering from increasing temperatures, those in cities must prepare to take on an extra dose of heat, due to “heat island effect” which makes urban environments up to 8C hotter than the countryside.

READ MORE: Scientists explain the ‘heat sink’ effect that makes Paris feel like an oven

Météo France reports that the country has suffered at least 43 heat waves have been detected since 1947, but they are becoming more alarming.

“Heat waves are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change,” said Robert Vautard, meteorologist and climatologist to Reporterre

They are also becoming more dangerous – Vautard explained that while the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.5C in the last hundred years, average temperatures during heat waves have spiked even higher, becoming increasingly erratic. 

Coping with warmer temperatures is becoming a necessity, but it is in the big cities where people are sweating the most – Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris, for instance, it can be up to 8C warmer in the city centre than in the suburbs due to the urban “heat sink” effect.

French government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire last week announced that the country has devoted €500 million to encourage urban vegetation projects in order to turn ‘îlots de chaleur‘ (urban heat islands) into ‘îlots de fraicheur‘ (islands of coolness). 

South of France 

In the south of France, cities have always been designed with heat in mind – centuries-old techniques like white-painted buildings, shutters on the windows and narrow, shady streets help residents to stay cool.

Cities like Nice have even employed natural, traditional air conditioning systems – if you walk through the old town, you might notice “openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors” – they allow for fresh, cool air from the street level to come into the inside of the building.

Rural southern French ‘mas’ farmhouses were also built to keep cool, always facing south with very small windows to keep out summer heat.

But on the Côte d’Azur, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. For the rest of the world, warming occurs at 0.2C a decade, but in Côte d’Azur temperatures are increasing around 0.3C every ten years.

During the 2019 heatwave, southern France’s Gallargues-le-Montueux village, located in the Gard département broke heat records when it recorded 45.9C. Warming temperatures will impact the region so much so that it may even warrant a new climate classification in the next 50 years.

All this means that the traditional cooling techniques may not be enough to allow locals to cope with soaring temperatures.

For densely populated Marseille, the city will try to add breathing space between its closely aligned buildings: the objective is that for each urban block, there will be gaps between streets and a changing of the height between these spaces (like hollowing out the base) in order to better allow natural ventilation and airflow.

For wider streets, the city is looking at adding shade coverings over the blocks to keep them cool, and as the city is prone to flooding, grassy areas to plant trees will also be used for water retention, which also has a cooling effect.

In the north

Meanwhile, in northern parts of the country, cities were generally built with the intention to keep heat in, rather than out, meaning that they cope poorly with heatwaves.

Larger windows – a feature that is common in cities like Paris – wide boulevards covered in dark asphalt and roofs made of zinc are all well suited to cooler months, but means cities turn into ovens during a heatwave.

The more green space a city has, the more the temperature falls, so cities like Lille and Paris which are particularly densely populated and lack green space, are engaging in major ‘re-greening’ programmes.

On top of this, all French cities have some challenges in common: monuments historiques, or buildings registered as national heritage sites, where there is a lengthy process to make any changes or alterations that might impact the building or the character of the area.

Then, there is the challenge of the places that people simply do not want to see altered – like the area around the Eiffel Tower, for instance. 

READ MORE: Plan to fell trees near Eiffel Tower causes backlash from residents in French capital

But some cities do have ambitious plans to counter rising temperatures.

Americans might be wondering if this will involve more air conditioning in French buildings – unfortunately, the answer is no: air-con actually makes the heat island effect worse by pumping hot air back out onto the streets (as well as obviously guzzling energy to operate the systems, contributing to the climate change that is at the root of the problem).

Instead, it’s about finding ways to redesign city spaces to mitigate the extreme heat that is here to stay:

Paris plans

Paris’ climate action plan, released in 2018, defines how the densely populated city plans to cope with climate change, particularly its status as a heat island, between 2020 and 2030.

Along with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Paris hopes to prepare itself for “long periods of extreme heat,” warning that “the scorching summer of 2003 may well become a “normal” summer in 2050. 

Solar power plants and solar shading – to aid in its carbon neutral goals, the city of Paris hopes to invest in urban solar power plants, and one will be installed in the Bois de Vincennes flower park.

The city wants this ‘solar power plant’ to also incorporate solar shade structures in public places, in order to “combine the benefits of energy production with protection against extreme heat”

Training “energy facilitators” and “eco-managers” – these people would work with stakeholders in individual neighbourhoods to oversee greening projects.

The action plan says they would “keep an eye on vulnerable people during heat waves, facilitate the lending or hiring of property and equipment such as bicycles between residents, manage a mini-urban logistics hub, carry out the pre-collection of certain types of waste or transfer bulky waste items to waste sorting and recovery centres.” 

Cool islands and routes in Paris – The city plans to keep and maintain its interactive map that will show you where to keep and stay cool during periods of extreme heat.

As of 2018, the city had already identified around 700 ‘cool islands,’ like museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces. But, the goal is that by 2030, the City will create or open at least an extra 300.

READ MORE: Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

Schoolyard oases – Removing asphalt from school yards and increasing green space is also part of the plan.

The city’s plan to build more ‘oases’ will help to create more cool islands. As schoolyards take up over half a million square metres in Paris, this offers a large amount of space that can be radically cooled down. In 2020, the city started with just three schools, and will continue expanding throughout the decade.

New roofs for Paris – Paris’ rooftops are a huge part of the city’s architectural history and identity, but they are also heat conductors. The city of Paris has proposed to that rooftops that are either too steep or facing the wrong direction ought to be  “covered in vegetation or reflective paint” in order to reduce urban heat island effect. 

More trees – Having already added almost 50 hectares of trees during the last climate action plan, Paris has a new goal of increasing its tree canopy by 2 percent – this would mean adding more than 20,000 trees. 

Greening the tramways – Finally, Paris’ tramways will get a facelift by adding grass and getting rid of the heat-soaking concrete beneath the rails

Finally, during heat waves the city will continue using its emergency plan, intended to inform and protect vulnerable people (and the general population) of where and how to stay cool. 

READ MORE: How France plans to ‘heatwave proof’ its cities

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ENVIRONMENT

Explained: The ‘risky project’ of a hydrogen pipeline between France and Spain

A planned underwater hydrogen pipeline connecting Barcelona and Marseille is a risky project, but one that is key for the European Union's energy independence.

Explained: The 'risky project' of a hydrogen pipeline between France and Spain

Here’s what we know about the joint initiative by Madrid, Lisbon and Paris, which will be discussed on Friday on the sidelines of a summit of southern European Union nations in Spain:

What is it?

Dubbed “H2Med” or “BarMar” (from Barcelona and Marseille), the pipeline will transport green hydrogen, between Spain, France and the rest of Europe.

Green hydrogen is made from water via electrolysis and with renewable energy.

Announced at an EU summit in October, the pipeline offers an alternative to the defunct 2003 MidCat pipeline project.

Intended to carry gas across the Pyrenees from Spain to France, it was eventually abandoned over profitability issues and objections from Paris and environmentalists.

What are its goals?

The pipeline aims to boost the decarbonisation of European industry, giving it access to clean energy on a large scale, which Spain and Portugal hope to produce.

The two neighbours aim to become world leaders in green hydrogen thanks to their numerous wind and solar power farms.

France, Portugal and Spain initially said in October the pipeline aimed to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy by improving gas interconnections between the Iberian Peninsula and its neighbours.

Spain and Portugal account for 40 percent of Europe’s capacity to turn liquefied natural gas (LNG) that arrives in tankers back into gas form, but they are poorly connected to the rest of Europe.

But since the three nations want EU funds to mainly cover the project, the pipeline will need to be dedicated to hydrogen, Madrid and Paris have stressed.

Why Barcelona and Marseille?

According to the project’s backers, it is “the most direct and efficient way of linking the peninsula with central Europe”.

Barcelona is an energy hub in Spain, and according to Jose Ignacio Linares, a professor at Madrid’s Pontificia Comillas University, it “has one of the largest re-gasification plants in Europe”.

Marseille is also a key point in the French network and a gateway to the Rhone Valley, northern Italy and Germany — industrial regions that could become big consumers of green hydrogen.

What route will it take?

The route has not yet been decided, but “the most logical” option would be to run close to the shore to avoid deep waters, Linares told AFP.

If that’s the case, H2Med would extend some 450 kilometres.

When will it be ready?

French Energy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told Spain’s El Pais daily the pipeline could come online in 2030, while her Spanish counterpart Teresa Ribera said it could enter service in “five, six or seven years”.

How much will it cost?

The cost of the project has not been revealed. But the European Hydrogen Backbone (EHB), that groups European energy pipeline operators, estimates a two-billion-euro price tag.

What are the obstacles?

“An offshore hydrogen pipeline at this depth and distance has never been done before,” said Gonzalo Escribano, an energy expert at Madrid’s Real Instituto Elcano think tank.

The innovative project faces certain technical challenges.

One of the main problems is that hydrogen is made up of small molecules which can escape through the joints and cause corrosion, said Linares, an engineer by training.

But such problems could be overcome by “installing a membrane inside (the pipeline), a kind of plastic that prevents the hydrogen from escaping,” he said.

What’s the outlook?

The biggest risk is its economic viability, experts say.

“It is not clear when the green hydrogen market is going to take off and whether Spain will be in a position to produce enough to export it,” said Escribano.

But Linares said its construction would take so long “that we can’t afford to wait”.

“If we do, we’ll end up with a huge volume of hydrogen that we won’t be able to export.”

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