One effect of the heating of the planet is hotter summers in Europe – the summer of 2022 was the hottest ever recorded in France – and heatwaves that are both more frequent and more intense.
As well as headline-grabbing top temperatures – France recorded its highest ever temperature of 45.9C in 2019 and Paris is predicted to record a temperature of 50C before 2050 – heatwaves are also getting longer with more ‘tropical nights’, where the temperature does not drop below 20C.
Heatwaves represent a major threat to health and even life, and although cities already have their own emergency plans that are deployed once the temperature spikes, now the government has unveiled its first nationwide plan to deal with the effects of vagues de chaleur.
‘Cool maps’ for towns and cities
Towns and cities are on average 2C-3C hotter than the surrounding area and during heatwaves this can rise to 10C hotter. The ‘heat sink effect’ is due to a combination of factors such as lack of green spaces, materials such as concrete and bitumen that reflect heat and human activity that produces heat (from cars to air conditioners).
The government’s plan requires all préfectures to create a map of the îlots de fraîcheur in their town – these ‘cool spots’ include shaded areas, air-conditioned or cooled buildings that are open to the public and brumisateurs (cool foggers). The maps should also include drinking water fountains.
Many cities already do this as part of their heatwave emergency plans, but these cool maps will now become generalised across France.
SMS alerts for heatwaves
These aren’t just text messages telling you that it’s hot – you could stick your head out of the window and get that information. The SMS alerts will be sent to people who are entering an area that is on a heatwave alert and will tell them of any specific risks – such as wildfires – as well as health advice and best practice for public spaces such as airports and train stations.
Messages on how to stay safe in the heat will also be broadcast on public transport.
Electricity grid surveillance
One of the biggest risks during a heatwave is a power outage – as electricity networks in France were simply not designed with such long and intense heatwaves or periods of drought in mind.
Power outages in heatwaves pose a major risk to life, since they would knock out air-conditioning and prolonged blackouts can also affect the drinking water supply.
The grid operator Enedis and network provider RTE will be stepping up surveillance of the grid and deploying emergency teams during periods of heatwave and drought to avoid power cuts.
School classrooms are an increasing worry in the summer, since many school buildings – especially in northern France – were not built with heat in mind. Schools are of course on holiday in July and August but rising temperatures and the extension of heatwave periods mean that May, June and September are increasingly uncomfortable in the many schools where classroom temperatures can be 4C-8C hotter than outside.
“When it’s 34C outside, the temperature in a school or office with bay windows directly exposed to the sun’s rays can rise, depending on the region, to 38C or even 42C,” Serge Chalmandrier, head of engineering and ventilation solutions at Kingspan, told Le Parisien.
The government has tasked local education authorities with carrying out annual inspections of all schools focusing on temperature and measures taken to keep classrooms cool.
Schools will also be required to have at least one large, cooled space available for students to take exams in.
“In order to keep exam postponements in hot weather to a minimum, a check will also be carried out every year to verify the presence of cooled rooms and premises large enough and available to host the brevet and bac exams. If necessary, credits can be set aside for their rental,” states the environment ministry’s plan.
While working in a hot office can be uncomfortable during a heatwave, working outdoors in extreme heat can be life-threatening.
France’s labour inspectors will step up inspections of workplaces where staff work outdoors during heatwave periods, and offer companies guidance on keeping their staff safe. Hotter summers have seen farms and vineyards adopt variable working hours during harvest time, with workers starting in the early hours of the morning to maximise the cooler periods and stopping work when the day gets hot.
Young people doing their service national universel (national service) will be used to check in on vulnerable people such as the elderly and encourage them to subscribe to the ‘risk register’ of people who receive regular checks and health advice during heatwaves.
La Poste is also getting involved and postal workers will be distributing advice about staying safe during heatwaves.
Live animal transport bans
Many people would like to see live animal transports banned altogether on animal welfare grounds – the government’s plan doesn’t go that far, but it does ban road transport of animals between 1pm and 6pm – the hottest part of the day – during a heatwave period.
This affects road transport only for “live, vertebrate animals as part of economic activity”. It therefore affects cattle or pigs being transported for slaughter, for example, but would not affect horse-owners transporting their pet to a show. The rule comes into effect when a heatwave is declared by Météo France.
Sporting and cultural events register
Summer is peak time for festivals, fêtes and sporting events in France – but soaring temperatures mean that some are becoming uncomfortable or even dangerous for competitors/performers and spectators.
The government wants départements to create a register of all sporting and cultural events from mid-June, with local mayors submitting lists of events in their area to the préfecture.
When a heatwave is declared, the préfecture will summon event organisers and ask them to adapt their event to make sure it remains safe for attendees. If the heatwave is particularly extreme, or the event cannot be adapted, préfectures have the power to cancel.