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Tour De Heat: Cycling through a Changing Climate

The Tour de France, an annual men's multiple-stage bicycle race across France, represents the perfect harmony between sport and nature. Widely regarded as the most prestigious cycling event worldwide, it is the ultimate test of human endurance, pushing cyclists to cover vast distances across varied landscapes and terrains.

Since its inception in 1903, this race has stood the test of time, evolving alongside the historical changes that have unfolded throughout France. As a Grand Tour, the Tour de France consists of 21 stages spread across 23 days, comprehensively exploring diverse environments to challenge its participants. While the route undergoes slight alterations each year, the basic format remains intact, incorporating various dimensions of terrain.

The race showcases France's most breathtaking landscapes, from conquering steep mountain ranges like the Pyrenees and the Alps to navigating through picturesque sunflower fields. This awe-inspiring journey culminates on the grand Champs-Élysées in Paris, serving as a fitting finale to a 3,500 km traverse across the country.

In its 110th edition in 2023, the Tour de France features a meticulously crafted route, outlined in Figure 1 below. This edition includes a demanding 22km hilly time trial in the Alps and mountain stages spanning all five of France's mountain ranges, beginning in the Basque Country of Spain and concluding in Paris; it promises to be an exhilarating and unforgettable experience for both riders and spectators alike.

Figure 1: 2023 Tour de France Stages

In addition to the 2022 race serving as a platform for climate protestors, who interrupted stage 10 for 15 minutes to advocate for climate action, the Tour de France has increasingly become a silent showcase of the adverse impacts of climate change in a nation with two-thirds of municipalities exposed to a least one natural risk.

Year after year, the race witnesses teams of cyclists whizzing past arid fields, events occurring near wildfires, and enduring extreme heat, as depicted in Figure 2. These dire conditions compelled the Tour de France organisers to take action last July. They implemented measures such as spraying water on melting road surfaces and establishing alternative feed zones to mitigate the effects of the changing climate.

One notable instance of climate-related intervention occurred in June 2022 during a stage of La Route d'Occitanie in southwest France. Local authorities issued a red alert due to temperatures nearing 40°C, prompting the stage to be drastically reduced to a mere 36km.

The severity of the situation was further highlighted when riders had to withdraw from the Tour de Suisse and Tour of Slovenia due to heat stroke. Consequently, many cyclists now adopt preventive measures to combat the scorching conditions. They wear ice vests before the race, hang ice socks around their necks, and even resort to post-race ice baths to recover from the demanding physical exertion. These increasing incidents exemplify the Tour de France's role as a microcosm of the climate crisis that will increasingly negatively affect insurance, banks and real estate companies.

The official Tour de France sponsors, Le Credit Lyonnais (LCL) bank, highlight a growing awareness across the French private sector that showcases the necessary climate actions of organisations.

LCL's Corentin Leveugle, Director of Developments, mentioned how the bank was the first to carry out the first green Leveraged Buy-Out on the French market. But as climate change continues to manifest in increasingly tangible ways, the Tour de France serves as a poignant reminder of the urgent need for climate action and adaptation beyond the world of professional cycling by all organisations across France at a time when companies are proactively aiming to tackle climate change within existing operations.

Eric Cochard, Head of Sustainable Development at Crédit Agricole, supports this change, “Climate financing is an important aspect of our business as a corporate and investment bank. The Bank is a driving force as regards the role it needs to play to combat global warming.”

Tour de France 2022 Climate-Related Risks Wildfire Modelled by Spectra for 2050 / RCP 8.5
Figure 2: Tour de France 2022 Climate-Related Risks

The escalation of temperatures in France, as illustrated in Figure 3, has been a concerning trend since 1947. This upward trajectory now leads to greater heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires.

In fact, over the past three decades, France has witnessed three times as many heatwaves compared to the preceding four decades. These worsening climate risks are not only significant in their own right but also hold profound implications for the Tour de France, a race that encapsulates the nation's vulnerability to climate change within a mere 23-day timeframe with the impacts of climate change become more visible and palpable, leaving an indelible impression on participants and spectators alike.

Over the past 20 years, the frequency of extreme climatic phenomena has quadrupled.

French municipalities are an essential link in the prevention of climatic risks.

This requires everyone to have a good understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change as well as a clear vision of the actions to be taken"

stated Patrick Cohen, CEO of AXA France.
France Temperatures (1947 - 2023)
Figure 3: France Temperatures (1947 - 2023)

Bites of the 2023 Le Tour

Comprising 23 stages, the Tour de France offers viewers and riders a captivating journey through the diverse tapestry of France. It is an unparalleled opportunity to showcase the varied impact of climate risks across different regions of the country.

Let's delve into the distinctive types of stages for this year's race that further highlights these nuances:

Stage 5: Pau > Laruns

The Pyrenees stages of the Tour de France represent just one of the five magnificent mountain ranges encountered during the race. Within these stages, cyclists embark on remarkable riding endeavours.

For this stage, the participants face a formidable 15.2 km ascent, all while enduring the scorching sun along the 162.7 km route. However, despite the demanding nature of this stage, it is deemed a relatively modest climbing day, with even more difficult mountain challenges ahead as the race progresses more profoundly into the warmer season across Europe.

Climate Risk Data Analytics
Figure 4: Stage 5: Pau > Laruns of the 2023 Tour De France

The scorching heat poses a real physical risk to the riders. It is objectively a physical risk felt throughout the entire Pyrenees mountain range, indicating an apparent increase in temperature at every moment of the year, consistently observed over the past three decades.

“Temperatures are rising faster in mountainous regions, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change. Glaciers in the Pyrenees have shrunk a lot over the past 150 years,” stated Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director. An analysis of the mean annual temperature for the entire Pyrenees mountain range reveals a clear upward trend of approximately 0.2 °C per decade, as illustrated in Figure 5. This data substantiates the alarming reality of climate change and its unmistakable impact on this majestic mountain range.

Projections of the annual mean anomalies for (a) maximum temperature (b) minimum temperature, and (c) precipitation for the Pyrenees. Source: Météo France
Figure 5: Projections of the annual mean anomalies for (a) maximum temperature (b) minimum temperature, and (c) precipitation for the Pyrenees. Source: Météo France

The escalating warming trends are poised to have profound consequences, including reducing snow cover thickness and a shorter duration of snow coverage on the ground.

In recent decades, floods have grown increasingly prevalent in various parts of the Pyrenees, impacting specific tourist destinations within the mountain range. Moreover, the rising temperatures have instigated notable transformations in the terrain, leading to an augmented occurrence of rockfalls, landslides, and mudslides.

These events pose a significant threat to local infrastructure and residential housing, necessitating heightened attention to the impact of climate change on the region's resilience.

Stage 7: Mont-de-Marsan > Bordeaux

Situated in the picturesque Landes de Gascogne region in the southwestern part of France, stage 7 of this year's race, depicted in Figure 6, offers cyclists an exciting route covering 169.9 km along the eastern edge of the magnificent Landes forest.

Climate Risk Data Analytics
Figure 6: Stage 7: Mont-de-Marsan > Bordeaux of the 2023 Tour De France.

However, it is essential to note that the cycling stage route is close to the climate risks of wildfires.

Only last year, a devastating megafire ignited southeast of Bordeaux in August near stage 7 for this year's Tour de France. The severity of the wildfire forced 10,000 residents to evacuate while approximately 7,400 hectares (ha.) of forest land was destroyed.

This year, recent wildfire incidents broke out between the border of Spain and France between Banyuls-sur-Mer and Cerbère on the Mediterranean coast.

The surface burnt in France has already reached over 21,000 ha., so far this year, about 3.5 times the average for the past two decades. For 2022, more than 66,360 ha of forests were burned in 2022 across the country.

Wildfires across France in 2020
Figure 7: Wildfires across France in 2020

In southwestern France, the convergence of strong winds and prolonged drought conditions has intensified the risk of wildfires. Remarkably, the megafire that occurred last year in August continues to smoulder underground, presenting a persistent and challenging situation.

"It's been burning since mid-July," said Guillaume Carnir , who works for France’s National Forest Agency (ONF). "To this date, we don't have a clear answer as to how to stop it". Asides from southwest France, there is a concerning trend of wildfires spreading over a longer timeframe and encompassing broader geographic regions, particularly in northern France.

The impact of this trend is evident as 90 metropolitan departments experienced at least one significant fire in 2022. Moreover, the intensification of wildfires has been particularly pronounced in areas already highly vulnerable to such events. Disturbingly, if these trends persist, projections indicate that wildfires could extend their duration by 2 to 3 weeks by the end of the century. This would significantly elongate the period during which these devastating fires wreak havoc on the affected regions.

Stage 21: Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines > Paris Champs Élysées

The grand finale of the Tour de France, stage 21, presents a magnificent 115.1 km journey through the iconic cobblestone streets of Paris.

As the cyclists approach the capital, they are greeted by the city's beloved wide boulevards and charming zinc-top roofs. However, it is essential to note that these architectural features can also act as a "heat sink" during periods of extreme weather.

Climate Risk Data Analytics
Figure 8: Stage 21: Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines > Paris Champs Élysées of the 2023 Tour De France

The sweltering heat is already a reality in Paris. The city's existing temperature record of 42.6°C in the shade, set in 2019, is a testament to the rising scorching conditions.

On average, Paris tends to be 2 to 3°C warmer than the surrounding rural areas. However, during heatwaves, this temperature difference can surge by as much as 10°C. A concerning report suggests that in 2030 Paris could face an average of 34 heatwave days per year, more than doubling the 14 recorded in 2008.

Shockingly, forecasts indicate that Paris could reach a sweltering 50°C by 2050. In response to this pressing climate risk, Paris must adapt. The city needs to invest in green spaces and innovative urban planning initiatives.

Paris Mayor, Anna Hidalgo , has already set ambitious goals to transform the city's 35 km-long périphérique (ring road) from a "grey belt" to a "green belt" by planting a staggering total of 70,000 trees. In addition, retrofitting existing buildings and replacing heat-absorbing zinc roofing with more heat-friendly materials are essential to combat rising temperatures.

Paris has garnered well-deserved accolades for its Climate Action Plan, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Vincent Viguié, a climate change economics researcher at the Centre for International Research on Environment and Development (CIRED), commends the city's efforts placing "the city among the most active in the world on this subject, both in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the present and future impacts of climate change".

However, Paris must take a comprehensive and interconnected approach to address climate change effectively. Dr. Vivian Dépoues, a Climate Change Adaptation Project Leader at the Institute for Climate Economics, emphasises Paris officials need to work on a "more profound transformation of the city". Some questions, such as "how to make hospitals more resistant to heatwaves, for instance, have not been raised or examined closely enough as they are difficult ones."

Climate X's mission is to help answer these difficult questions by providing accurate and reliable granular data to ensure banks, insurance, and real estate companies understand climate risks.

The importance of utilising climate data is iterated by Jane Ambachtsheer, Global Head of Sustainability at BNP Paribas Asset Management, needing to strike the "best fit-for-purpose data" for each use case for the bank's activities of serving their client's needs or internal operations in a rapidly changing climate.

Beyond the Yellow Jersey

France faces the multi-faceted challenges of climate change that permeate various sectors throughout the country. Consequently, it is imperative for the nation, including events like the Tour de France, to adapt to these transformative changes.

The Tour de France is a compelling platform, vividly illustrating the magnitude of climate risks that will increasingly impact diverse industries such as banking, real estate, and insurance.

Symbolically, climate change expert Matthieu Sorel claims, "We're going to have to change the way the Tour de France is designed in the next few years" - this aligns with French companies needing to adapt to climate change.

Whether to serve the needs of clients, protect their assets or meet increasing demand for transparent reporting, exampled by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) with Nathalie Wallace, Global Head Sustainable Investment, Natixis Investment Managers showcasing the importance of regulation that “allows investors to make informed decisions on transactions and capital allocation,” it is fundamental for organisations increase their understanding the risks of climate change.

While the cyclists participating in the Tour de France explore strategies to stay cool to combat the heat, France needs to pedal harder towards a realistic adaptive path to confront the climate crisis with organisations fostering collaboration and knowledge to be the real Tête de la course. 

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