Following arguments last week from a suitably tie-less Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Spain published new rules Tuesday stipulating that no business will be allowed to cool its interior below 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit) or to heat it above 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter. In place until November 2023, the decree also calls a halt to the illumination of monuments, bans stores from lighting up their windows after 10 p.m., and requires shops to have an electric display showing the temperature inside to passersby.
Such curbs are not entirely new — public buildings in Spain, except hospitals, already follow a 27-degree cooling cap — but the extensive reach of this suite of power-saving measures reflects the seriousness of a looming threat: an energy crisis brought about by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In response to fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will cut off gas supplies, the European Union has agreed to trim energy use by 15%, triggering a continent-wide watchfulness over thermostats and light switches. In Berlin, for example, the city government has pledged to reduce its own energy consumption by 10%, and the city has already stopped illuminating its monuments by night, plunging sights such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column into non-customary darkness. Italy and Greece also have 27-degree caps on air conditioning in public buildings, and in July, Paris introduced fines (albeit a modest 150 Euros) for businesses that leave windows and doors open while running their AC.
The region's energy woes are being compounded by weeks of hot, dry weather and low water levels in several European rivers, which are critical for shipping fuel to German power plants and for cooling French nuclear reactors.
Once winter sets in, power for heating becomes the priority. As Bloomberg's Javier Blas has argued, Paris may face a high risk of cold-weather blackouts; energy-saving measures in France include a ban on heating café terraces. Berlin's boroughs are contemplating reducing temperatures in public offices and schools during the winter, lowering the temperature of public swimming pools and rearranging the schedules of public workers to capitalize on daylight hours. Such proposals prompted pushback from the Christian Democrats' deputy parliamentary leader, Jens Spahn, who said that the government measures threatened Germans with a triple threat this winter: "Live cold, shower cold, catch cold."
Spain is less dependent on Russian energy supplies than many other European states — network operators have stated that the country could survive a total shut-off of Russian gas supplies. And while the EU-wide target for energy reduction is 15%, Spain is only being asked to cut back by 7%. Still, the energy-saving measures have also received some criticism from conservative Spanish lawmakers. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, president of the state of Madrid, said on Twitter that she would not follow the rules on illuminating buildings because it would generate insecurity, deter tourism and bring "darkness, poverty, sadness" — a vivid threat in a nocturnal culture where 10 p.m. is a standard dinner time.
It might surprise some North Americans, who enjoy comparatively crisp indoor temperatures in offices and public spaces, that it's the lighting bans, not the AC caps, that are drawing more complaints. Madrid and other Spanish cities have been facing punishingly high temperatures this summer: Highs have reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) and more than 600 people died for heat-related reasons in the first two weeks of July alone. But Spain's generally low summer humidity makes higher indoor temperatures somewhat more bearable than they might be elsewhere, and traditional Spanish construction norms produce buildings better designed to keep heat out.
The difference that the built environment makes can be seen in Spain's heat alert system, which issues public warnings when a city exceeds a temperature after which excess deaths are known to rise. In the northern port of A Coruña, Spain's coolest major city, this alert point is set at just 26 degrees Celsius (78.8 degrees Fahrenheit), reflecting a built environment designed more to shield from rain than extreme heat. But in southern Córdoba — where residents have long managed some of Europe's highest temperatures with narrow streets, small external windows and shaded courtyards — excess deaths only start climbing once the mercury hits 40 degrees Celsius. While some construction from the late 20th century onwards jettisoned the heat-placating solutions of the past, Spain's cities have tools other than mechanical air cooling to keep interiors livable in summer.
Furthermore, air conditioners increase external temperatures — and thus cooling demands — contributing to the heat island effect that can make urban heat waves especially dangerous. After the death of José Antonio González, a 60-year-old street cleaner who died of heat stroke in July after collapsing while working in Madrid, Spain's unions have been pushing for heat to be recognized in law as an occupational hazard. (It's believed that Gonzalez may have kept working because he was on a monthly contract he could not risk losing.) Cleaning companies have since agreed to move afternoon street cleaning shifts to the evening, a policy already in action.
Extreme temperatures could help revive another traditional Spanish heat adaptation: the siesta. While many Spanish professionals still take a long afternoon break following lunch before returning to the office into the early evening, it has been more rare for blue-collar workers to have time to do the same. That could change — not just in Spain but in other countries where siestas are non-traditional. In Germany, for example, unions are currently pressing for summer siesta rights for construction workers. As climate change pushes extreme heat northward, Spain's time-tested tool for managing its dangers could well be following.
Feargus O'Sullivan is a writer for CityLab in London, focused on European infrastructure, design and urban governance. @FeargusOSull
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.