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WEATHER

How France is legislating the use of air conditioning

France is passing a new law to regulate the use of air conditioning, while government offices will be required to limit their use - so how do the French feel about AC and is this just the beginning of tougher legislation?

How France is legislating the use of air conditioning
A woman opens the door of a store bearing a poster announcing an air conditioning room in Western France (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP)

In France is will soon be illegal for air-conditioned stores to keep their doors open, while government offices will only be able to put on the cool air if it is hotter than 26C indoors.

Meanwhile outdoor café and bar terraces cannot pump the heat or the AC.

The new countrywide regulation – which came after several cities across the France, such as Paris, Lyon, Besançon and Bourg-en-Bresse had already passed municipal orders to limit shops from allowing the cool air to escape – is intended to help limit excess energy consumption.

Meanwhile the regulation for government offices is part of an effort to ‘lead by example’ on President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘energy sobriety’ campaign in response to gas shortages due to the war in Ukraine, and the longer-term impacts of the climate crisis. 

The 26C limit is not mandatory for private businesses or homes, although it is advised.

France is not the only country to try and limit air conditioning – in Switzerland, simply getting air conditioning in a private residence is strictly regulated in some cantons. People in Geneva must prove valid reasons for adding AC to their homes, such as health conditions requiring it. In Zurich, residents must prove the machine is ‘particularly energy-efficient.’ 

Both Italy and Spain have imposed rules on how high the AC can be set; for government buildings in Italy, the aircon cannot go below 25C, and in Spain the temperature cannot be set lower than 27C. 

And finally – in a country where over 90 percent of households have AC – the United States saw its 2016 population (328 million people at the time, ie less than five percent of the world’s population) use more energy for cooling “than 4.4 billion people living in all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, with the exception of China,” according to Time.

Thus, it might come as a surprise that New York City actually passed a law the year earlier (2015) to attempt to stop businesses from cooling the pavement by leaving doors open. Though, after the implementation of the law, a survey found that one in five stores failed to follow the rules and were still allowing the cool air to escape. 

The French AC temperature limits are for the moment advisory for private businesses and individuals.

But France is pinpointing AC as one of the primary ways to tackle the climate crisis and energy over-consumption.

So how common is AC in France?

About 55 percent of stores and 64 percent of offices had air conditioning in 2020, according to a study by Ademe.

However, less than five percent of French households have AC. In 2019, the growth rate for the AC market in France was 13 percent, and in 2020, for the first time, the number of units sold exceeded 800,000, whereas previously it had stabilised at around 350,000 per year.

Heatwaves also tend to lead to surges in air conditioning purchases in France, and these intense climate events are becoming more frequent and intense. Cooling systems might appear to be the simple solution, but French concerns about climate impacts and energy are based in fact. 

During the 2019 heatwave in France, the country’s transmission system operator, RTE, announced record highs for energy consumption that summer, saying that it was related to the use of air conditioners and fans.

For each degree above normal seasonal temperatures, RTE observed increases in energy consumptions of 500MW – equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of the city of Bordeaux.

In France alone, the CO2 emissions associated with the operation of air conditioning systems can be estimated at approximately 0.9 million tonnes per year. This represents about 4.5 percent of total emissions generated by electricity production in France. When it comes to leaving the doors open with the cool air blasting, shops stand to increase their energy consumption by up to 20 percent. 

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

The other issue with air conditioning is that it can exacerbate the ‘heat island’ effect in cities, as it pumps hot air back into the outdoors, increasing temperatures on the street.

How do the French feel about air conditioning?

If you’ve spent time in France, you have likely been told at some point that air conditioning is bad for you: it will shock your body and make you sick. This is not proven, in fact, AC can sometimes protect your health, as shown by a 2009 study demonstrating that air conditioning can “help stave off the effects of particulate matter in the environment.”

But the French have other – perhaps more understandable – gripes against AC. First of all, it’s expensive. In a study about French attitudes toward air conditioning, over two thirds of respondents mentioned not having air-con due to economic reasons. 

Second, the environment. In the same study, 78 percent of respondents said they would like to reduce their energy consumption, with over half indicating they’d rather suffer from the heat than install an air conditioner that guzzles energy. Almost half (49 percent) of respondents indicated feeling guilty when using AC, for environmental reasons. For younger generations (those under 50), that number jumped to 56 percent. 

That being said, nine out of ten French people do believe it is important to have some cooling systems in place to protect vulnerable people, such as the elderly. After the 2003 heatwave which resulted in thousands of excess deaths, particularly in older people, the government has mandated more designated cooling spaces in cities, and requirements for nursing homes to have at least one cooled common space. 

What are the alternatives?

As hotter summers become the norm, France is hoping to employ alternatives cooling methods, such as better insulating buildings. In January, all new homes built will need to be insulated in a manner that the indoor temperatures do not exceed 28C without the use of air conditioning. 

Several cities have also put into place specific plans to combat heat island effects, particularly by adding more vegetation. 

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

Paris in particular is hoping to expand its ‘urban cooling’ system, which “circulates water from the River Seine at 4C underground,” according to RFI. This system will eventually service all of the city in 2042.

According to engineer and expert in low energy buildings, Olivier Sidler, the steps mentioned above, such as better insulating buildings, creating more shade, and even using traditional architecture techniques involving heavy materials, such as stone, are all necessary prerequisites. 

Currently, many buildings across France are energy inefficient and in need of renovation – according to RFI, France would need to renovate some 700,000 buildings a year, ten times what is currently being done, to meet minimum cooling requirements.

Sidler told French daily Le Parisien that it will also matter which air conditioning systems are used – as heatwaves become more common and more intense, energy-efficient air conditioners may become necessary, as we will “have to resort to [them],” but “today’s air conditioners, which contain the most harmful greenhouse gases, are a disaster: they accelerate global warming.” 

Member comments

  1. Hi, I highly doubt the statistic that 90 percent of US households have air conditioning. Please verify further. Your reference was to a site called “statistica”. What is their source?

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CLIMATE CRISIS

France records 10,000 excess deaths in second hottest summer on record

After the second hottest summer ever recorded in France - after 2003 - French health authorities have released data on excess deaths recorded over the season.

France records 10,000 excess deaths in second hottest summer on record

In a press release published by Santé publique France on Monday evening, the health authority noted that “multiple climatic phenomena” occurred during the summer, calling it the “hottest since 1900” with a “significant health impact.”

The data covers June to September and lists 10,420 excess deaths – that is deaths in excess of the average for the summer season.

Of those 2,816 deaths occurred during the three periods when the country was officially on heatwave alert – a 16.7 percent increase when compared to non-heatwave periods during the summer.

Experts also believe that many of the remaining 7,604 excess deaths were heat related, even if they occurred during periods when there was no heatwave warning in place.

“A part of this excess of summer mortality is probably due to the population being exposed to strong heat, even if temperatures did not reach the thresholds for heatwave alerts,” noted the report.

As expected, the worst affected were the elderly. Of the 2,816 excess deaths recorded during the three heatwave episodes this summer, 2,272 were among people aged 75 and over, i.e. nearly 80 percent of excess deaths during heatwaves.

However, all age groups were represented, as shown in the figures below. Most of the deaths across age groups occurred during the second heatwave, which was the “most intense” in terms of heat.

The impact of the pandemic

The pandemic also likely played a role in heat-related deaths. Specifically, 894 Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in hospitals and medical establishments during the heatwave episodes.

The head of Santé publique France’s “Quality of Living and Population Health” unit, Guillaume Boulanger, explained in a press conference that “Covid-19 could have increased vulnerability to heat for some people, and exposure to the heat may have worsened the condition of some patients affected by the virus.”

The excess mortality in relation to high temperatures is France’s “highest since 2003,” a year where a three-week heatwave resulted in over 15,000 deaths.

It was this heatwave, and the shock that so many elderly people were found dead in their own homes, that led to cities creating the heatwave plans that are in use today.

In addition to excess mortality, there was also a rise in non-fatal health complications across the country. Throughout the entire summer, more than 17,000 emergency room visits and 3,000 SOS Médecins consultations were recorded for hyperthermia, dehydration and hyponametria (salt deficiency resulting from dehydration).

Additionally, during heatwave periods, the number of emergency room visits and SOS Médecins consultations were two to three times higher than outside of heatwave periods.

The three heatwaves were described in the report as “intense and noteworthy.” The first occurred in June, at an unusually early time for the summer season, the second in July, which was widespread geographically and impacted over two-thirds of French population, and the third occurred in August.  

Geography

In terms of the parts of France that were most impacted, four regions – mostly concentrated in France’s south – stand out with particularly high levels of excess mortality.

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Nouvelle Aquitaine, Occitanie, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur recorded the majority of the country’s excess national deaths during the heatwaves.

However, when looking at the deaths in proportion to the number of inhabitants, Brittany, a region typically known for cooler summer temperatures, saw a high proportion. The Paris region and Grand Est also saw higher per-population proportions of excess deaths.

The report joins other literature on the topic of excess deaths in Europe as a result of climatic events. The European Environment Agency recently released a study showing that without adaptation measures, if global warming were to reach 3C by 2100, “90,000 Europeans could die from heatwaves each year.”

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