Last year was a big one for Grenoble. Not only was the French city the EU’s Green Capital — an award conferred on places “leading the way in environmentally friendly urban living” — it also reached the milestone of enabling homes to be powered completely by renewable energy.

For Éric Piolle — whose election in 2014 made him the first Green Party mayor of any large French city — these achievements owe a lot to Grenoble’s location in the foothills of the Alps. “We are surrounded by mountains, so we see the impact of climate change directly,” he says. “It’s embedded in your daily life.”

The average Alpine temperature has increased more than 2C since 1900 — around twice the global average. “We’re in January and we’ve got no snow,” says 21-year-old Beinn Horsfall, a competitive skier. “Everyone is aware of it.”

But geography is only part of the story. Vigorous policymaking, with significant input from locals, has also boosted Grenoble’s green credentials.

Between 2005, when the city became the first in France to unveil a climate plan, and 2016, greenhouse gas emissions fell by 25 per cent. It has a thriving carpooling service and, in 2021, a survey by France’s federation of cyclists identified Grenoble as France’s top location for cycling.

The city has a strong focus on participatory democracy, inviting locals to propose environmental initiatives that are put to a public vote. Though turnout tends to be low — only a few thousand out of a population of 160,000 — more than €4mn has been spent on winning projects since 2015.

Grenoble mayor Éric Piolle
Éric Piolle: ‘We are surrounded by mountains, so we see the impact of climate change directly’ © Sebastien Buret for the FT

Efforts to spur community involvement take many forms. Schoolchildren have been invited to redesign their playgrounds, introducing vegetable patches and trees to mitigate the excessive heat that artificial surfaces produce on sunny days. Food waste from household collections is used to produce compost and biogas. And, in 2014, one of Piolle’s first acts as mayor was to ban hundreds of advertising billboards, replacing them with trees and noticeboards for local interests.

To coincide with Grenoble’s stint as Green Capital, the Grenoble-Alps Metropolitan region also set up a Citizens’ Climate Convention. Meeting from March to October, its 100 delegates — selected to be as representative of the local populace as possible — came up with more than 200 proposals for cutting the region’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Their work was the subject of a session at December’s World Summit on Participatory Democracy, when Grenoble welcomed representatives from more than 60 countries to discuss democratic renewal and environmental justice.

Opening ceremony of the World Summit on Participatory Democracy, held in Grenoble in December 2022
People power: Grenoble hosted the World Summit on Participatory Democracy in December © Auriane Poillet/City of Grenoble

Many of the Climate Convention proposals will be incorporated into the region’s Climate Air Energy Plan, or passed on to local authorities for implementation, while more complex or controversial measures will be put to a public vote this year.

Some argue that such exercises are less democratic than they appear to be. Emma, a 23-year-old student and activist with the leftwing New Anticapitalist Party, thinks that, in practice, they marginalise people who do not have the time, resources or skills to develop solutions to urban problems.

“Since it is only a certain category of the population who can have access to participatory democracy, the ideas that they bring will respond to the concerns of part of the population, not of the whole population,” she argues.

Others embrace Grenoble’s green agenda. César Lechémia, a co-founder of Cultivons nos Toits (Let’s Cultivate our Roofs), is one of the city community’s driving forces. As well as establishing vegetable gardens on social housing rooftops, his project brings migrants from countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia together to exchange ideas — and to cook. “Cooking, for us, is a real vehicle for integration,” Lechémia says.

Grenoble is also an incubator for businesses intent on greening the economy. Of the 22 companies selected by government start-up accelerator French Tech for its Green20 programme last year, four were based close to Grenoble. The Green20 scheme aims to nurture fledgling eco-tech companies by offering government support and international reach.

a man standing in a garden with the view of city behind him
Green growth: César Lechémia is co-founder of Cultivons nos Toits . . .
a garden on the terrace of a building
. . . a project that puts vegetable gardens on social housing rooftops © Sebastien Buret for the FT

One such start-up, Waga Energy, produces biomethane from landfill gas, feeding it directly into the national grid and claiming to avoid 45,000 tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions per year. Founded in 2015, it has raised more than €100mn, operates 13 units in France, and has plans for international expansion.

According to Romain Gentil, president of the local branch of French Tech in the Alps, Grenoble offers a perfect ecosystem for disruptive ideas. “People are looking towards start-ups more and more, because they have the tools: most of the time there is money and there are advisory networks,” he says.

“The city is very ambitious, and quite restrictive, in what they require from businesses,” he adds, in reference to its low-emissions zone — the largest in France — which limits higher-polluting vehicles in Grenoble and 27 surrounding municipalities. “But they also put in place measures to help businesses adapt.”

Glaciers on a mountainside near Grenoble
In retreat: glaciers in the Alps, such as these near Grenoble, are threatened by climate change © Baptiste Diet

Big companies, too, are playing their part. Global gas supplier Air Liquide pays up to 90 per cent of its staff’s public transport fares and offers financial incentives for cycling to work. Last year, it completed a new campus in nearby Sassenage with wooden buildings made from Alpine trees.

Grenoble’s model is not without its challenges, however. Advertising company JCDecaux estimated that the city would lose €600,000 a year from the commercial advertising ban — though the mayor’s office said it would be more like €150,000. And, as Gentil notes, a “delicate balance” is needed to make sure struggling businesses and residents are not left behind — a sentiment echoed by Horsfall, the skier, who admits that, for some people, road closures and car parking cuts can be frustrating.

But Piolle’s re-election as mayor in 2020 suggests that Grenoble’s populace broadly backs his plans. By empowering its citizens and pushing businesses to go green, the city may have hit on a winning formula. “Feeling part of the story is a good momentum for action,” says Piolle.

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