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ENVIRONMENT

Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

With France in the grip of an historic drought we asked a climate expert which areas are worst affected, what type of water restrictions we can expect to see in the coming weeks and how long the drought it likely to last for.

Ask the expert: Why is France's drought so bad and what will happen next?
Amid drought and a third heatwave, France's Loire river shown to be very low in early August 2022 (Photo by Jean-François MONIER / AFP)

Hydrologist and President of Research Organisation ‘Mayenne’ Emma Haziza answered The Local’s questions on the latest drought situation.

How does this drought compare to previous years?

When we look at previous years, France had four years of historic drought in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Last year (2021) saw higher rainfall because of a cold polar air front that settled over France and played a role in generating a lot of rainfall. But even when we look at last year, we can still see that outside of France there were already abnormally high temperatures. 

In 2017, 18, 19 and 20 there was still a very good amount of underground water that was refilled during the winter months. This shows that even with a healthy amount of rainfall in the winter, the summer still ended up being historically dry.

However this year, the water tables were not adequately refilled due to a low rainfall during the winter.

We have already seen three heatwaves and we are expecting a fourth. We have seen temperatures higher than average, with the month of May being the hottest registered in France. 

READ MORE: More than 100 French villages without tap water in ‘unprecedented’ drought

This means that even if the water tables were sufficiently refilled over the winter, we would still be in a bad position – but our current situation is even worse because of the low rainfall over the winter.

What areas are likely to be hardest hit by drought?

It is basically all over the country, but in particular the entire Loire basin, along the Mediterranean, and the Grand-Est region (in the east of France) will be impacted. The Atlantic coast will also be impacted as it has had mostly high pressure systems and almost no rain since January. 

Ultimately, local drought situations depend less on the area of France and more on the type of aquifer – whether the water table is deep and full.

More shallow water tables feed the rivers and many of these are drying up too. 

So does this mean the North and West can expect to be impacted too? Could these regions also need to restrict household water usage?

Yes, this means that the North (and Brittany) could be impacted too. 

The lack of water at the tap is making its way across the country – it depends on the water tables, not whether a village is in the North or the South. 

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is water likely to be rationed as France’s drought worsens?

We once thought that climate change was coming for the South first, but heatwaves are proving to accelerate drought and are impacting the north and the west as well. It is like a hairdryer all over France.

How long could it last?

As the forecast does not indicate rain any time soon, looking into the month of September the situation could become worse. This means that in many parts of the country we might have to wait until October to see the water tables begin to be refilled.

In 2017, the drought did not end until December and this year might be similar for the localities that do not get rain. This means we will need to continue supplying villages by bringing in trucks filled with water. 

With the drought, we can also expect that when rain does come that there could also be flash flooding. 

How can people best stay informed?

The government website Propluvia.fr allows you to see underground water levels and whether they have reached a critical state or not, as well as keeping up to date on water restrictions in your area. 

MAP: Where in France has water restrictions and what do they mean?

You can also keep up to date with the latest restrictions on The Local’s climate crisis section.

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DRIVING

Low emission zones: What you need to know if you’re driving in Europe

More and more cities around Europe are introducing low-emission zones, mostly administered by a sticker in your vehicle windscreen - but what if you're travelling between different countries? Here's a look at the rules around Europe, and which countries will accept a foreign vehicle sticker.

Low emission zones: What you need to know if you're driving in Europe

Hundreds of cities across the EU currently operate some form of low emission zone system in an effort to reduce air pollution caused by motor vehicles.

And the numbers are only going to increase, as more towns, cities and Member States set up low emission zones. In France, for example, from 2025 a total 43 towns and cities will require motorists, from home and abroad, to display the country’s Crit’Air stickers – with fines for non-appliance rising from €68 currently to €750.

READ ALSO Crit’Air: Drivers face €750 fines in France’s new low-emission zones

Will one sticker fit all?

No. Some nations do recognise stickers from other countries – Spain has said it will recognise stickers from all EU states, Switzerland recognises France’s Crit’Air stickers, and Czechia has said that, when low-emission zones start coming into force, at first in the capital Prague, it will recognise stickers from Germany. 

But there is currently no standard, EU-wide system in place, which means that drivers planning multi-country journeys will have to ensure they follow the rules for low emission zones in each and every country they visit. That could mean a lot of stickers…

To make things more confusing, the rules are often complex, and may vary from city to city – even from day to day as temporary rules can come into effect during periods of high pollution.

Which countries in the EU have low emission zone rules?

There are a few, so we’ve broken them down EU nation by EU nation. Strap in.

Austria

There are seven low-emission areas in Austria – notably in the Vienna, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Styria, Tyrol and Burgenland regions – where stickers are required for light goods vehicles and heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks, buses, and coaches.

Rules affecting older cars – those registered before January 2006 – are expected to come into force soon. And it should be noted that motorhomes registered in vehicle class N require an environmental sticker.

Some low-emission zones do not officially require stickers (though they may be useful) but you may need to show your vehicle’s documentation if you are stopped by police

A single badge costs €29.90 plus VAT, and can be bought from the DEKRA site here.

Belgium

The whole of Antwerp is a low-emission zone, while most of Brussels and certain areas of Ghent also have stricter emissions rules. 

Newer vehicles with Belgian or Dutch number places are not required to register on a database allowing them to enter these areas, but cars from other nations must do so – for free – before they are allowed to enter these areas. Alternatively, you can pay a fee (€35 per day for cars / 20€ for mopeds and motorbikes / 50€ for heavy goods vehicles) for an exemption pass.

Register your non-Belgian or Dutch plated vehicle for Brussels’ low-emission zone here

Any vehicle entering the Brussels Region Low Emission Zone without registering in advance is liable to a fine of €150, even if it complies with conditions for entry. Any inaccurate information submitted during registration is liable for an administrative fine of €25.

Register for Antwerp’s low-emission zone here, or use one of the Low Emission Zone machines dotted around the city. More information on those here.

You can check whether your vehicle is allowed in the low-emission zone in Ghent, here.

Buy your day-passes here – nb: Drivers of any foreign-registered vehicle (including The Netherlands) who would like to purchase a day pass must first register their vehicle.

Czechia

A low-emission zone is being set-up in Prague for which drivers will need a windscreen sticker. The Czech ministry is yet to announce which foreign stickers will be recognised for foreign vehicles – though it is expected that German ones will be accepted. Czech vehicles are advised to apply for a sticker when they become available.

Denmark

All heavy goods vehicles require a sticker to enter low emission zones throughout the country.

Meanwhile, older diesel vans, weighing up to 3.5 tonnes, lorries and buses aren’t allowed into the low-emission zones unless they’re fitted with a particulate filter.

As of October 1st, 2023, all diesel-powered cars must have a particulate filter in order to be able to drive legally in the low emission zones. 

The fine for cars driving illegally in the Danish low emission zones is DKK 1,500 (€202). 

If you drive a vehicle affected by the rules, you must register your particulate filter and/or euro norm. You can do that here.

Finland

In Helsinki, only local public transport buses and lorries are affected by low-emission zone rules.

France

France’s Crit’Air sticker system is currently in operation in 11 towns and cities, and will be extended to over 40 by 2025. All vehicles – including those registered outside France – are required to buy a sticker from the official site, here before they can be driven in any of the country’s low-emission zones.

READ ALSO Driving in France: How the Crit’Air vehicle sticker system works

The sticker costs €3.72 including postage if you’re in France, rising to €4.61 for those outside France. 

From January 1st, 2023, Crit’Air 5 vehicles (diesel vehicles produced before 2001) will be banned from all low-emission zones. This will be followed on January 1st, 2024 by Crit’Air 4 (diesel before 2006) and on January 1st 2025 by Crit’Air 3 (diesel before 2011 and petrol/diesel before 2006).

Local authorities can also impose targeted local bans – temporary and permanent – in zones under their jurisdiction. Since January 1st, Montpellier, for example, has required every car to have a Crit’Air 4 or lower sticker to drive in low emission zones, while lorries, minibuses and coaches need a Crit’Air 3.

The Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy is also an emission-check zone. Checks are manual and based on the age of the vehicle. It’s probably a good idea to have your car documents on you.

France does not recognise other countries’ stickers. 

Germany

Stickers allowing access to numerous low-emission zones in towns and cities across Germany can be purchased from garages, test stations, local authorities or online.

Proof of emissions is needed to purchase the sticker, so you’ll need your car documents if you’re buying in person.

If bought directly from city offices the stickers cost €5. Online they can cost more, while international postage will also add a premium onto the final bill. 

Alternatively, you can buy stickers from TÜV SÜD here – which will be shipped overseas – for €17.50, or from one of 300 TÜV SÜD service centres for €6.

TÜV-NORD, meanwhile, sells stickers online here for €9.90 if the vehicle is registered in Germany, or €17.50 if the vehicle is registered elsewhere.

Greece

Authorities have said that they want the capital Athens to be a diesel-free zone by 2025 and there are currently two schemes operational for part of the year in and around the city – the exact dates of the restriction period varies annually but it is usually from mid-October to mid-July.

In central Athens, during this restricted period, vehicles are controlled by their licence plate. Vehicles up to 2.2 tonnes are only allowed entry on alternate days, depending on whether their vehicle licence ends with an odd or an even number.

A special badge exempts certain categories of vehicle, such as electric, natural gas or LPG, hybrid, or Euro 6 class vehicles that emit less than 120 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre. To obtain a pass, click here

In the outer ring and the Attica prefecture region, Vehicles weighing more than 2.2 tonnes, including buses, must also meet minimum emissions standards.

Italy

Numerous low emission zones operate in Italy – mainly, but not exclusively, in the north of the country – with differing standards and time periods, while in numerous cities – including Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, and Bologna – restrictions may mean you cannot drive in certain areas during the day on weekdays, or on Sundays.

Penalties for entering restricted zones at the wrong time range from €70 to €450.

In most cases, permits to enter these zones when restrictions are in place aren’t available to visitors, though there may be exemptions to this, while Milan operates a congestion charge system – similar to the one in London – for vehicles that enter the historic centre of the city.

The Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy is also an emission-check zone. Checks are manual and based on the age of the vehicle. It’s probably a good idea to have your car documents on you.

Netherlands

Amsterdam, Arnhem, Den Haag, Utrecht and Eindhoven (from 2025) have “green” LEZs for light duty diesel vehicles – meaning only light duty diesel vehicles that meet the Euro 4 standard and above may enter the zone. Rotterdam port, meanwhile, operates to a tighter Euro 6 standard.

Rotterdam and Utrecht have low emission zones which allow entry based on the date of a vehicle’s first registration. Dutch vehicles are registered through the national database, while drivers of foreign vehicles will need to have their documents with them.

Similar to Belgium, drivers of older vehicles can apply for an exemption to enter low-emission zones in Rotterdam and Utrecht. To apply for a day pass in Rotterdam, click here. Passes cost € 22.70, and last 24 hours. 

Drivers of older vehicles without an exemption risk a fine of €95.

Since January 1st, 2022, Utrecht has limited entry to diesel vehicles. Click here  to see if you can enter the city in your diesel vehicle

Portugal

In Portugal, environmental zones are called Zona de Emissões Reduzidas (ZER) (Emission Reduced Zone). There are technically two zones – effectively an outer zone and an inner zone in the capital, Lisbon.

The inner zone (ZER ABC) is more strict than the outer one, allowing only vehicles of Euroclass 3 or better to access.

Euroclass 2 or better vehicles can enter the outer zone. Drivers who flout the rules can face fines of €120. The rules in Portugal allow for vehicle owners to retrofit their vehicles with filters that improve the engine’ Euroclass rating.

Spain

The rules in Spain are getting stricter. From 2023, all cities with 50,000 inhabitants or more must set up low-emission zones – that’s about 150 cities.

To date, however, Madrid and Barcelona are the only cities with low emission zones – Zona de Bajas Emisiones – in place.

Barcelona’s low-emission zone has been in place since January 2020. Vehicles must have a DGT environmental label to enter the zone between 7am and 8pm Monday to Friday. Additional rules may be enforced during periods of high pollution.

You can check whether you need a label here

Between 2023 and 2025, the Spanish capital, Madrid, will gradually become one giant low-emissions zone.

In Madrid, for example, vehicles without a Spanish sticker will no longer be allowed to drive on the M-30 ring road. 

You can order a DGT label, from €5 plus postage, here

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Sweden

Low emission zones in Sweden can be found in Gothenburg, Helsinborg, Lund, Malmö, Mölndal, Stockholm, Umeå, and Uppsala. There are, officially, three classes of zone, which apply to different types of vehicle. Two are currently in use, while the third is on the statutes but not the streets.

The most common applies – a class 3 zone – to buses and trucks weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, which must, in affected areas, conform to Euro6 standards. 

The country’s sole Class 2 zone, applies to passenger cars, light buses and vans not powered by hydrogen or electricity, which must conform to Euro5 standards – though diesel Euro5 vehicles were banned from these zones in July 2022. This zone is only enforced on one street in Stockholm – Hornsgatan in the Södermalm district.

Electric, fuel cell and gas vehicles will only be permitted in currently theoretical Zone 3 areas, as the country gears up to ban petrol and diesel vehicles altogether from 2030.

You mention Euro standards a lot. What does this mean?

It refers to emission standards for passenger cars and light commercial vehicles.

Since 1992, European Union regulations have been imposed on new cars, with the aim of improving air quality – that’s the same year catalytic converters became compulsory on new cars. 

Since then, there have been a series of Euro standards as the rules become more strict – the current Euro 6 was introduced in September 2014 and was rolled out for the majority of vehicle sales and registrations from September 2015.

They define acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new light duty vehicles sold in EU and EEA (European Economic Area) member states.

However, although there are EU standards for cars, there is as yet no EU-wide version of the emissions stickers. 

And finally… Beware of scams

One last thing to be aware of – watch out for scam sites. Make sure you only order your stickers from official websites. Some portals charge as much as five times more than the actual cost of the stickers in “administration fees”. The links on this page were, at the time of publishing, correct.

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