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PARIS — Long a favorite spot for picnics and sunbathing, the lawns surrounding the Eiffel Tower have recently become the scene of furious protests. First came a social media campaign. Then a rallyy by dozens of local residents. Shortly after, a protester had squatting in a nearby plane tree for a hunger strike.

The source of their anger? A plan to cut down more than 20 trees, some over 100 years old, around the tower as part of an effort to build a huge garden and ease tourist congestion.

The controversy is just the latest in a series that has engulfed Paris City Hall as it attempts to green the city, a task that appears all the more urgent as scorching temperatures are battering the French capital and on the rest of Europe.

Local authorities are redesigning Paris’ cityscape to make it more climate-friendly, but a growing number of residents say the widespread felling of trees around the capital is paradoxically undermining the city’s environmental ambitions.

Trees are considered one of the best defenses against radiation that contributes to the heat waves that are increasing everywhere due to global warming. They provide much-needed coolness in dense cities like Paris, where temperatures were in the 90s by Monday afternoon and are expected to rise.

Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“Without the trees, the city is an unbearable furnace,” said Tangui Le Dantec, urban planner and co-founder of Aux Arbres Citoyens, a group that protests the felling of trees in Paris.

In recent months, small protests have erupted across Paris, with residents and activists gathering around trees doomed by the sprawling urban development projects that have at times turned the capital into a giant construction site.

In April they filmed the felling of 76 plane trees, most of them decades old, at Porte de Montreuil, on the northern outskirts of Paris. The town hall wants to transform the site into a huge square, as part of a project by the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, to create “a green belt” around the capital.

“Ms. Hidalgo, please stop the slaughter,” said Thomas Brail, the founder of the National Tree Watch Group, as machines cut down trees behind him, in a video he filmed in April. Mr. Brail then staged an 11-day hunger strike in the plane tree near the Eiffel Tower.

Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Yves Contassot, former deputy mayor of Paris in charge of the environment and member of the Greens party, said that the felling of trees had become “a very sensitive issue which is causing a bit of a scandal at a time when we are talking fight against global warming”. in the big cities. »

At first, the plan to redevelop the congested area around the Eiffel Tower seemed eco-friendly to Parisians. Most vehicles would be banned and a network of footpaths, cycle paths and parks would be created.

“A new green lung”, boasted the town hall on its website.

But locals discovered in May that the plan also meant cutting down 22 well-established trees and threatening the root systems of several others, including a 200-year-old plane tree planted long before the Eiffel Tower was built in the late 1880s.

“The poor tree was planted in 1814, and one morning some guys want to make room for luggage storage and it gets taken away,” said Mr Brail, the protester who went on a hunger strike in the tree, mocking plans to improve facilities. for visitors.

Credit…Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A series of protests, along with an online petition that garnered more than 140,000 signatures, finally forced the city council on May 2 to change its plans and promise not to cut down a single tree as part of the construction project. greening.

Emmanuel Grégoire, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of town planning and architecture, said in an interview that the city realized it was “losing a symbolic battle over the green ambitions of the project”.

In 2007, Paris adopted a climate plan that reduced the city’s carbon footprint by 20% between 2004 and 2018 and almost doubled the consumption of renewable energy, according to a recent report by regional authorities. Paris’ new goal is to become a carbon-neutral city powered solely by renewable energy by 2050.

Mr. Le Dantec, the town planner, acknowledged that “as far as the reduction of pollution is concerned, there has undoubtedly been an improvement”. He referred to Ms Hidalgo’s successful, albeit disputed, plans to limit car use in the capital.

But he added that Paris’ urban plans had overlooked another reality of climate change: rising temperatures, against which trees are seen as one of the best defenses.

Credit…Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Trees cool cities by providing shade and mitigating the effects of the so-called “urban heat islands”, which are prevalent in Paris, by absorbing radiation. Météo France, the national weather service, estimated that temperatures on these heat islands during recent heat waves were at times 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in surrounding regions.

In mid-June, when France was suffocating in scorching temperatures, Mr. Le Dantec walked around Paris with a thermometer. Republic Square, checked in temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on concrete surfaces, compared to 82 degrees under a century-old plane tree.

“Our best protection against heat waves are trees,” said Dominique Dupré-Henry, a former architect at the Ministry of the Environment and co-founder of Aux Arbres Citoyens.

But of the 30 major cities studied by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paris has the lowest tree cover, at around 9%, compared to 12.7% in London and 28.8% in Oslo.

“It’s the exact opposite of adapting to climate change,” said Ms. Dupré-Henry.

Mr Grégoire said Paris planned to plant 170,000 new trees by 2026. Taking the example of Porte de Montreuil, the area north of Paris, he said many more trees would be planted than slaughtered.

Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“It’s a project with very high environmental standards,” said Mr. Grégoire, highlighting the transformation of what is now a huge asphalt roundabout into a green square. “The results are positive in terms of the fight against urban heat islands.”

Regional environmental authorities are less confident. In their assessment of the project, they note that the construction works and new infrastructure “will, on the contrary, add more heat”.

Mr Le Dantec also said that in the short term, young trees are less effective than older ones in mitigating global warming because their foliage is smaller and cannot absorb as much radiation. “A 100-year-old tree is worth 125 newly planted trees” in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide and cooling its environment, he said.

At the door of Montreuil, the inhabitants have a mixed opinion on the project. Lo Richert Lebon, a 57-year-old designer, hailed the “green efforts”, saying they would help improve the quality of life in this long-declining suburb.

But “lawns are not worth trees,” she added, standing in the shade of the plane trees whose felling is planned, as part of the redevelopment of a neighborhood flea market. “Trees should be integrated into these efforts, rather than being an adjustment variable.”

Correction:

July 18, 2022

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated how much warmer it was in Paris than nearby during recent heat waves. Temperatures were 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit higher in Paris, not 40 to 50 degrees.

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