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Drought alerts now expected for almost all departments in France

While climate experts say it is not too late to act for the future and are encouraged by first meetings with new Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne

Drought affected crops in Normandy France

Agriculture accounts for 70% of fresh water used in France Pic: Photoagriculture / Shutterstock

A quarter of French departments, including several in the north, are on a drought alert, with May’s record temperatures leading to water restrictions for individuals and farmers.

A total of 91 local drought orders are in place – for example, imposing limits on garden watering, car washing and filling swimming pools. Almost all of France is expected to be affected soon.

Read more: France declares drought in 24 departments with 92 water rules in place

Read more: France must act or drought will hurt power stations, crops and tourism

It is not too late to act for the future

Climate experts confirmed man-made climate change as a fact to The Connexion and said ‘extreme climate events’ are now inevitable here. 

Heatwaves, flash floods and structural damage to homes are among the expected consequences. 

However, they say we can still make a difference. 

Climate programme director for ecological think tank IDDRI Lola Vallejo said: “We have to stop the idea that ‘it’s too late’ to act.

“Yes, the objective [set by the Paris climate agreement] of limiting the rise to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels] is extremely difficult, given our insufficient action in the past, but the alternative is to make all possible effort to limit it to at least 1.6C or 1.7C, for example. Every tenth of a degree, each year, counts.” 

Political focus in France

The experts all hail the fact that new Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been given responsibility for ‘ecological planning’, whereas in the past the environment was seen as a more junior role.

She is supported by two ministers, Amélie de Montchalin and Agnès Pannier-Runacher, although several commentators claim they lack sufficient experience or green credentials. 

Since pre-industrial times, global temperatures have now risen around 1.1C on average globally. 

“In France, extreme climate events are more frequent and severe: more heavy rain, causing floods in towns where the water can’t run off; river floods; and strong rains after drought, which damage houses when there are clay soils beneath expanding, then contracting,” said Ms Vallejo. 

Global emissions still rising

She said that, to meet 1.5C we need to halve emissions by 2030 compared to 2010, then have almost zero by 2050. It is positive that all countries have set targets since the 1990s but globally emissions have still risen, apart from a blip during the pandemic that is now over, she said. 

They have lowered in Europe but not enough.

France uses more road transport than 10 years ago

Ms Vallejo said France helped negotiate a package of green laws in its EU presidency. 

The EU Commission, meanwhile, has an “unprecedented” project of ecological targets in all sectors called the European Green Deal. 

President Macron set up the Haut Conseil pour le Climat to evaluate France’s climate policies but it says France is not reducing emissions fast enough. 

There is less fossil fuel electricity production than many countries but still much dependency on oil in transport, with more road transport than 10 years ago. 

Goodwill and dialogue needed

Arnaud Schwartz, president of ecology group France Nature Environnement, met Ms Borne and her two key ministers. 

He said: “We had a really sincere exchange and are waiting to have more meetings to hear what decisions are taken,” he said.

They agreed on the need for a lot of dialogue over projects and to protect biodiversity. 

Some commentators say the two ministers are inexperienced and have not shown past commitment to ecology. However, Mr Schwartz said: “We think people of goodwill can move things forward. Those chosen have a capacity for work and dialogue and if they do what they said – and meet us regularly and listen – we’ll progress. We won’t make upfront judgments.”

He said the government aims to include all ministries, with the prime minister’s office giving each an ‘ecological road-map’, with targets and follow-up.

Reassure those who fear change

To succeed, the experts all said we must reduce emissions of green­house gases, increase greener energies and adapt to change. 

Mr Schwartz said: “If we don’t, things will get worse. 

“The goal is to convince people to change their rules and habits and convince them it’s possible and that we’re going to help, starting with the most vulnerable. We’re also going to help firms, some of whom fear change. We must listen to their fears.

“The prime minister has well understood the need for this. 

“She said she wants to reassure those who want to go faster and also reassure those who are afraid of going too fast.”

What can individuals do?

Ms Vallejo said more use of electric power can be one solution, but only if produced ecologically. 

Lowering your thermostat, driving more slowly, not lighting shops and advertising boards after 21:00, or not heating terraces can also help.

Mr Schwartz said “the whole of society” must realise we can “no longer go on doing things the same way”. We have to be more “restrained” and share more.

Rethink transport

For example, he said it is not enough to replace all our petrol cars with electric ones, as individual car ownership for seven billion is not viable. We need to walk and bike and use public transport more and think about “fewer and shorter journeys”.

Cheap, ecological public transport is therefore important. “Resources are limited, so we can’t go on wanting the kind of lifestyle adverts sell to us. In all areas, we need to think about our practices and avoid consuming energy if we can.”

Rethink buildings

Ms Vallejo said our buildings need to be well-insulated but also well-ventilated and with plenty of shade. We must not build on flood plains, and in some places must consider that we have built too close to the sea.

“With rising sea levels and waves, with flooding and erosion, it won’t be sustainable to live and work in those areas.”

People need a lot of support to do large-scale energy-efficiency renovation, not just one-off changes, she added. 

Huge water use in agriculture

Finally, agriculture is the key when it comes to water use, as it accounts for some 70% of fresh water used in France. 

More efficient irrigation is needed and crops that use less, for example sorghum, as opposed to maize.

More ecological methods, including crop rotation and planting trees and hedges, can create healthier soils that will help stock the water in the ground and water tables better.

Ms Vallejo said reducing meat consumption would also help, though this is “an elephant in the room”.  In the food-processing industry, the possibility of purifying then re-using water – for example, water used for washing vegetables – is being examined at European level. 

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