Paris has recently been shivering under the kind of summer for which it was once infamous — before climate change entered mainstream lexicon and thinking. As temperatures soared in parts of southern Europe, rain has lashed the French capital, sending tourists and locals scrambling for umbrellas and thick sweaters.
It’s certain to be a short-term reprieve. By 2050, one recent study said, Paris could have the highest number of heat wave-related deaths of any European capital, with temperatures possibly hitting a scorching 50 degrees Celsius.
“We have to maintain the beauty of Paris, while also finding new tools, new materials to adapt Paris against the heat waves,” said Paris City Councilor Maud Lelievre, who authored a recently released report, Paris at 50C, that calls for dramatically adapting the metropolis to a future of sizzling summers.
“A catastrophic situation,” she added, “could be a city where only the poor and old people stay, without any solutions.”
Paris is hardly alone. A series of alarming climate reports are sending municipal planners worldwide back to the drawing board. That is especially so in Europe, the world’s fastest-warming continent, which endured its hottest summer and second-hottest year in 2022.
Recent weeks alone saw near-record-breaking temperatures in parts of Italy, Spain and Greece. Worldwide, last month was likely the hottest on record, according to the European Union-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service and the World Meteorological Organization.
Even before this latest bout of hot weather, many EU cities had drafted action plans to adapt. More than 100 of them, including Paris, have vowed to become climate neutral by 2030. But turning plans into action is another matter.
“We have approximately 80,000 cities and towns in Europe, and all of them are still lagging behind in regard of the necessity to adapt to a changing climate,” said Holger Robrecht, the Europe region’s deputy regional director of ECLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of local and regional governments.
“We don’t have any city in the European region that at this moment is 100% climate resilient,” he added.
Still, Robrecht and other climate experts praise Paris, under leftist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, for strides in greening the city. Recent changes include expanded tramway and metro lines, a raft of pedestrian-only zones and 130 kilometers of bike lanes, with another 50 kilometers expected to be added by next July.
Paris also plans to make next summer’s Olympic Games the most eco-friendly in history, with promises to slash carbon emissions by half compared with those of previous games in London and Rio de Janeiro.
A much more drastic overhaul is needed, experts say, to make the city livable in the years to come. Some draw parallels to the kind of urban revolution nearly two centuries ago under Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, which demolished a tangle of medieval neighborhoods to build elegant avenues that crisscross much of the city today.
City of Lights, and green
“In the next 20 years, we need to adapt all the streets around us with trees and with vegetation to create green corridors,” Lelievre said, adding, “We could have a real green city like Singapore — and also a light city.”
Today, however, the very architecture that makes Paris iconic also makes it a heat trap. The city is densely populated, short on large parks like London has, and despite Haussmann, still has many narrow streets with few if any trees.
Despite Hidalgo’s drive to green the capital, some recent urban renewal plans, including those inherited from her predecessor, favor heat-absorbing concrete over grass and plants. The city’s famous zinc rooftops, candidates for UNESCO World Heritage status, could make top-floor apartments unbearably hot in future summers, if unaltered.
“During a lot of years, we had no idea it was an obligation to adapt cities and especially Paris against heat waves,” Lelievre said, adding, ”We had emergency plans for the winter, but not for summer.”
Adopted unanimously earlier this year, the City Council’s plan sees widening green oases of air corridors and plants now being built in front of schools to all city neighborhoods; reopening fountains and renewing thousands of apartments; and replacing zinc roofs and other surfaces with lighter-colored materials that are more suited for hotter climates.
Some proposals, like creating rooftop terraces with plants and water catchment systems, have already been proposed by Hidalgo. Key to the latest plan — which doesn’t include a price tag — is loosening up strict French building codes. Paris lawmakers hope parts of the plan will be integrated into upcoming urban renewal and biodiversity legislation.
Other European cities are also getting climate revamps.
Copenhagen, vulnerable to sea-level rise, has rolled out an ambitious flood adaptation management plan after being hit by record-breaking rainfall in 2011.
Barcelona’s climate plan aims to increase solar power and green spaces, sometimes by revamping whole neighborhoods.
Many cities have not forgotten the punishing heat wave of 2003, when an estimated 70,000 people died in Europe, including 15,000 in France. But recent findings also show as many as 60,000 people died in Europe’s 2022 heat wave, suggesting much more needs to be done.
“Cities want to get prepared” for climate change, said ECLEI’s Holger, “but it’s not always reflected in daily decision-making — which may turn a green space into a parking lot, or fell a tree that’s 80 years old and gives shade to its citizens.”
Still, he remains optimistic. “We are still in the early years of our response,” Holger said.