The French connection
France is a picture of contradiction, with increased dependence on nuclear energy on the one hand and a resolve to have a low-carbon economy on the other.
Photo: Meena Menon
Exploring alternatives: The free-to-use Velib bicycles.
Sitting in a Paris wayside café, we were suddenly beset by a group of young girls in pink, one of them wearing metallic loopy earrings and a tiara of pink stones. She was the bride to be, she explained hurriedly and wanted our suggestions for a
better world. Her friend would record it on camera. When I said France should reconsider its nuclear energy programme, she exclaimed, “But what’s that got to do with a better world?” The tiara-clad bride-to-be evidently did not see the connection.
In many ways her reaction epitomises the French people’s acceptance of nuclear energy as the fuel of the future. A government official told us during a recent visit to France that an industrial economy cannot run on renewables. Even countries like Austria, which don’t want nuclear energy, buy it from France, said the official. Now the U.K. and other countries are considering nuclear energy as an option to fight climate change effects. About 78 per cent of the total electricity output in France is from nuclear-powered sources.
Energy from renewable sources in France covers 12 per cent of energy consumption, which is comparable with the rest of Europe, an official said. In contrast to its pro-nuclear stance is the French commitment to alternative forms of energy. In Paris, where 80 per cent of the people use public transport, you can see people whizzing by on two little rubber tyres, which is very innovative and the government has developed a fleet of bicycles for public use since last year. With its fleet of over 20,000 cycles, the self-service scheme, called Velib, is gaining in popularity in Paris.
Herve Kempf, a journalist with Le Monde, is one of the few critics of France’s policy. “We have to reduce energy consumption and look at renewables. However, decreasing energy use is not politically feasible and the anti-nuclear movement is still very small,” he remarks. About 200 km from Paris is the Lille Metropole Urban Community which is held up as an example of several initiatives to fight climate change. In fact, with the TGV train beaming you there in an hour, Lille is something of a suburb of Paris. The city has a combination of buses, the world’s first unmanned metro, an elevated tramway and also some of the uniquely designed waste treatment plants. The biogas produced from the waste fuels some of its public bus fleet even. About 1.9 million people populate its 85 communes, some of which have as little as 185 inhabitants. Lille was an industrial centre which suffered from serious unemployment after its 300-odd woollen and textiles units closed down.
From the swanky L- shaped train station at Lille, it is a short walk to the local metro, the fastest unmanned metro in the world. The 45-km length metro is connected with an extensive bus network and of the 350 buses, 75 to 80 per cent run on gas, according to officials of Keolis groupe which runs the metro.
Not widely used
While officials claim a steady rise in the use of public transport, only 10 per cent of the trips in the metropolitan area are by public transport. The rest of the 90 per cent still uses private transport, including two per cent by cycles. The public policy in Lille has moved to focus on mass transit systems and cheap tickets. To reduce the use of cars, there is a scheme for public cars at different stations, which can be booked on the Internet. Development of car parks at the train terminus is also underway and parking is free if you have a metro ticket. The privately-run transport system is operated by Keolis for seven years on a 50 per cent subsidy from the urban community.
Another way to discourage cars is reducing private road space and making dedicated lines for trams and buses. The metro does not come cheap and to build 15 km of the metro lane it costs one billion euros. The double-walled metros prevent suicides as in the case of Paris. It is the backbone of the public transport system and 62 per cent of the public transport trips are made by the metro in Lille. The Lille metropolitan area is aiming for 100 clean public transportation by 2011.
Outside Lille is an elegantly designed organic waste recovery plant which treats 100,000 tonnes a year. Constructed in 2004, the testing phase of the plant is nearly over and soon the biogas generated from the waste is expected to fuel 100 buses. A bus station is attached outside the plant in readiness. The quality of gas, 95 per cent of which is methane, is yet to be validated and four million cubic metres of bio methane a year is expected to be produced. Funds have been generated by a new household waste collection and treatment tax, based on the value of the property. This is the first plant which will be used for public buses and comes at a cost of 75 million euros. There is also an incineration plant which converts high calorific waste to energy, apart from an elaborate waste water treatment project. By Indian standards, these projects have huge capital costs, yet are financed by the governing bodies and run by private entities. While there is a green consciousness and a commitment to climate change goals, cities like Lille would be an exception and even here it is a very small percentage that uses public transport, despite an excellent network.
The government is also not for curbs on private transport or on the number of cars like most developing countries as it does not believe in a policy of restraint. However, France has shown its commitment for a low-carbon economy, though it heavily relies on nuclear energy. Increasingly it is becoming a trendsetter in that direction, creating a bizarre contradiction with its avowed efforts to increase its dependence on renewables.
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