Municipal elections in Paris: Will the city of light be up to the challenge of environmental issues?

In recent months, cities around the world have taken the lead in the race towards the environmental revolution. With every new municipal election, higher commitments are taken each time to turn cities into what they have never been until now: clean, environmentally respectful and sustainable places to live. After an energetic first term on the ecological front, the Paris municipal team, led by Anne Hidalgo, is up for election again, and plans to double the effectiveness of its environmental policy.

High densities, aging infrastructures and multiple challenges

Paris does not rank among the most recent cities in the world. In fact, it ranks among the oldest. Unlike more contemporary cities, such as New York, Paris was not designed with modern constraints and infrastructures from the beginning. Instead, it is built on the addition of layer, upon layer, upon layer of more-or-less optimized urban development, and much of its infrastructures goes back many centuries. This leaves little room for manoeuvre, when trying to implement large-scale and in-depth environmental reforms. In addition, the Paris area ranks fairly high in population density, which acts as a major factor for a hefty carbon footprint. Needless to say, rebuilding the are from the ground up with more environmental standards is not an option, and Town Hall must therefore contend with the lay of the land to implement environmental reforms. And, it must be said, several significant milestones have been achieved in the last mandate, considering how difficult it is to change things in a multi-millennial city attached to its past. Former municipal teams tried to address the matter, but with little avail, as reported by National Geographic reporter Daniel Stone in 2014: “Pollution isn’t just a matter of cutting down on the number of carbon-belching cars and replacing them with hybrids. That’s been happening, but not fast enough to brag about. Air quality is also a question of geography and climate. Cities in places with geologic barriers around them—Los Angeles for one—have always had smog issues, and likely always will. Temperature makes things worse. Particulates go further and move faster in a warmer climate.” However, substantial improvements have come to see the light since the arrival of the new team, such as an efficient, industrialized domestic waste recycling network, which helps reduce the environmental impact of the metropolis.

The automobile challenge

Regularly quoting Copenhagen as a sister city, incumbent  (and candidate for re-election) Anne Hidalgo has gone far to root out automobiles as the transport method of preference. The Local reported in June of 2019: “The pollution problem has prompted the Paris authorities, where temperatures are expected to reach 37C on Wednesday afternoon, to ban the most polluting vehicles from the French capital and the area immediately outside the city known as the “Petite Couronne”. This means that for the first time vehicles carrying Crit’Air 3 stickers will not be allowed on the roads inside the A86 (see below). Only those with vehicles registered 0, 1 or 2, as well as people with electric vehicles, will be permitted to drive.” Total bans have also been implemented for a day (“Paris sans voiture”), in order to enlighten citizens as to alternative ways of travelling, be it collective or individual. Generally speaking, the Paris area has a good quality transport network, composed of an inner-city network (metro) and outer-city network (RER), both in rather good working order. Nonetheless, city-dwellers who usually take the subway must sometimes keep a vehicle as backup, given the tendency of railroad workers to go on strike every year. In order to ease Parisians out of the conundrum, numerous additional transport modes have been added to the city, and everything has been done to encourage the use of non-thermal vehicles. Modification of roadways have simultaneously reduced the traffic of cars and increased the number of alternative transport vehicles. In 2019, Paris opened up to electric scooter service, with an initial 12 operators sharing the market.

Improved infrastructures changing the game

The two main emitters of pollution, naturally, are transport and energy. The transport sector has already been considerably re-managed, with municipal buses being gradually replaced with new generations, and dedicated bus lanes to enable them to travel through traffic and not emit unnecessary exhaust fumes. The next step is the upgrade of municipal lighting, with over 180 000 lights contributing to both comfort and public safety, but also representing a potentially high carbon footprint. With every public tender, Paris has seized the opportunity to install new generation light bulbs and LEDs, following the example of Copenhagen, where the municipality achieved outstanding results. However, LED lighting is comparatively less used in Paris than in Copenhagen. Environmental reporter Jeff Saint John writes on the Copenhagen projects: “Silver Spring will be working with French city lighting and electrical systems giant EDF on the project, which envisions linking LED lamps from multiple manufacturers in a single networking platform. The goal, as with many LED streetlighting projects, is to link the energy efficiency and long life of LEDs with the additional control and intelligence that can come from connecting these digital light sources into a broader network.” Additionally, Paris started resorting to clean energy sources only, as early as 2016. If Paris shortly installs new-generation public lighting, it will benefit twofold: by increasing safety, which is one of the factors of sustainability, and by reducing energy consumption on a large scale.

Environmental movements have blamed governments and cities harshly for the lack of drive they put into environmental reforms. A few cities, however, stand out with staunch and effective reforms. The main differential factor can probably be ascribed to simple complacence. Most municipalities are not willing to risk their re-election by bothering the population, thus issuing only tepid and superficial reforms. Anne Hidalgo, on the other hand, has shown the nerve to dig deep, and is on her way to matching Copenhagen, the sister city from the North.

Michelle Jackson
Michelle Jackson
Holder of an MBA in environmental studies, I have the opportunity to travel regularly around the world as part of my consulting activities for environmental causes. I'm trying to explore and develop all the best practices.