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In France, questioning the carbon footprint of icy holiday cheer

In France, as issues like climate change loom larger than ever in local and national politics, Christmas cheer is competing with growing concern about the environmental cost of holiday rinks.

By: New York Times | Saint-malo | Published: December 22, 2019 11:11:36 am
Ice skating in St.-Malo, France, which opted to keep its Christmas rink, on November 30, 2019. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

By Mélissa Godin

On a recent morning, toddlers and teenagers laughed and shouted as they skated around a rink of shiny ice just outside the walls of St.-Malo, a city on the northern coast of Brittany where winters generally hover above freezing.

“Because our region has neither ice nor snow, it’s so magical for the children to get to skate like this,” said Corinne Doli, 65, who snapped photographs of her grandchildren as they glided around on the ice.

But for others, as issues like climate change loom larger than ever in local and national politics, Christmas cheer is competing with growing concern about the environmental cost of holiday rinks.

Although St.-Malo kept its rink, other French cities, including Bordeaux and Rennes, canceled theirs, citing concerns about the size of the carbon footprint needed to maintain them.

Even in St.-Malo, environmentalists contested the plans after the city announced in October that a rink would be installed.

“In an era where ice is melting all over the world, from Antarctica to the Arctic, with glaciers retreating because of human activities, it is quite ironic that we would use a lot of energy to recreate a small ice surface,” said Gerard Le Bars, a member of the local group of the Europe Ecology-Greens political party.

The holiday skating rink may seem an unlikely environmental battleground. But in France, debates have coalesced around them in part because of ambiguity over their “Frenchness” — with some seeing them as an unwanted import.

Although France’s first indoor rink opened in 1876, the proliferation of Christmas rinks is a recent phenomenon. Even fans of the attraction in St.-Malo, such as Melanie Laguerre, 43, who was watching her children skate, noted that it “reminds us of what we’ve seen in American movies.”

A Christmas market in St.-Malo, France on November 30, 2019. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

If the holiday rinks are not really a French tradition, environmentalists argue, are they worth the high cost in energy needed to run them?

That question echoes other debates in France about how the adoption of a homogeneous global culture can aggravate climate change.

On Nov. 29, for instance, there were some protests against the emergence of “Black Friday” sales — an American phenomenon — because of the negative environmental impact and the glorification of commercialism.

For residents of St.-Malo, the debate over the skating rink reflects a visible menace. Built on a jagged peninsula, the coastal city is threatened by rising sea levels, and sandbags line parts of the shore.

“St.-Malo could become an island with rising sea levels,” said Evelyne Ollivier, a local representative of the center-left political party Place Publique. “Because of this, we think it is irresponsible to create a skating rink in St.-Malo that emits carbon into the air.”

According to RTBF, a Belgian public broadcaster, an outdoor rink consumes about 60,000 kilowatts of electricity per month — a carbon footprint equivalent to running about 200 refrigerators for a year.

Environmental considerations are gaining traction in France.

Green and allied parties won 12 seats in the country during elections for the European Parliament in May. In a recent poll in the newspaper Le Figaro, 72% of French people said they had become more aware of green issues over the past few months, and roughly half reported having adopted more environmentally friendly habits.

As concerns about climate change rise, politicians at every level in France have jostled to align themselves with environmental causes.

A beach in St.-Malo, France, a coastal city built on a jagged peninsula which is already threatened by rising sea levels, on November 30, 2019. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

But some said opposition to Christmas skating rinks is just political opportunism. Morgan Hector, organiser of the St.-Malo rink, said the attraction had welcomed some 20,000 visitors last year.

“I think they have a right to express themselves on a subject that affects the larger public,” Hector said of the rink’s critics. But, he added, “These people are doing politics.”

The origins of the holiday rink tradition were irrelevant, he said.

“Is it an American tradition? I don’t know,” he said. “Is it a French tradition? I don’t know that, either.”

Many in France are skeptical of small-scale environmental policies that target their traditions and ways of life; the “Yellow Vest” movement erupted last year when a proposed oil tax was perceived as disproportionately hurting the poor.

In St.-Malo, Damien Chalmet, 34, was skating with his 5-year-old son.

“I think before canceling the skating rink, we should deal with cars in cities” and gasoline-powered buses, he said. Skating rinks, he added, are part of tradition and “the magic of Christmas.”

Doli, the grandmother, said she felt much the same.

“It’s such a short time frame that the rink is open, and it brings such joy to the children,” she said. “It seems a shame to get rid of it.”

But Christine Bourquard, the local representative of the Europe Ecology-Greens party, challenged the logic behind installing the rink.

“Creating a skating rink in places with minus-20 temperatures makes sense,” she said. “But here in St.-Malo, skating rinks not only require a lot of energy but also do not correspond with local culture. So we’re creating something ‘cultural’ that is artificial.”

Other cities have already opted to replace skating rinks, with environmental concerns a prime factor.

In Rennes, about 45 miles away, authorities chose to install a carousel, deeming that more representative of the city’s culture.

On the first night of the Christmas market in Rennes, families gathered under umbrellas to ride the carousel and watch the lighting of the Christmas tree.

“I don’t see why we can’t find other activities that also bring joy but do not have a negative impact on the environment,” Noémie Connan, 22, said.

Others agreed.

“It’s great that cities are aware of that and are responding to these issues,” said Antoine Bidet, 21, referring to the ecological concerns as he strolled through the square.

He pointed to the carousel, adding, “We haven’t lost the charm.”

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