City-scale climate education for Paris

View over Paris at dusk, from the top platform of the Montparnasse tower, in 2008

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Julien Dossier of the consulting firm Quattrolibri, Raphael Menard of the engineering firm Elioth, and their supporting team are authors of the 2017 sustainability plan commissioned by the City of Paris. The full report is one of the best single documents we’ve seen on how to prepare the people of a city for the future.

When we mentioned we were interested in producing a similar project for New York, Julien shared valuable, practical advice from what they learned during the creation of the Paris report.

Now, as I sit down to share that advice in this post, NYC remains in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. How NYC, the State, and the US dealt with the pandemic makes for a vivid comparison with climate, as a way to understand the outsize benefits of fast action.

Shutting down the US two weeks earlier would have been a 90% cut in deaths, according to an estimate in the New York Times.

Shutting down NYC just one week earlier, on Sunday, March 15, instead of March 22, could have been almost a two-thirds cut in total casualties in NYC. That would mean more than 12,000 of the 19,000 people currently counted among fatalities would be alive.

A fast response would have meant a smaller caseload and made it easier to move to the ‘test, trace, isolate’ strategy that New York State now seeks to adopt, and which has been a successful strategy in New Zealand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In those countries, very few people have died from the pandemic; as of May 8, 21 in New Zealand, 6 in Taiwan, and 4 in Hong Kong.

Drawing a lesson from the city’s experience with Covid-19 and from reports we already have naming 2020 as a climate deadline: The energy transition needs to begin in earnest today; new norms that enable individual behavior change need to begin today; public education on climate at the scale of the Paris report needs to roll out today; and mechanisms that could fund that education need to be instituted today.

The Paris plan is like a recipe book for how to decarbonize a city, and there are insights on every page. The full report should be read and studied, as it anticipates, and offers answers to, most of the questions that come up about how we will achieve this monumental task. The story is told at the scale of a city like New York.

One engaging method that we haven’t seen in other citys’ planning: the report includes lifestyle portraits of fictional Parisians, showing people of various income levels experiencing the changes in their own lives as Paris becomes a carbon neutral city. This section personalizes the epic story that is about to begin in real life. It’s also the way all of us will feel the energy transition, in the way we live and the way we do things, almost all of which will be altered. The pandemic has proven we can alter our lives. We can’t go back to a world in which we wreck the climate; we must go forward.

The narrative section at the back of Paris 2050 imagines the lives of a mix of Parisians over the next three decades.

The report is a remarkable synthesis of problem-solving on climate change; also remarkable are the processes that created it, the team behind it, and the plans they developed to reach the public with the recommendations of the report. These outreach ideas are a model for other cities, including New York. Julien Dossier shared his notes with us, below:


We produced the report under a mad schedule (short nights, etc). We started in May [2016] if I remember well and submitted our final deliverable to the City of Paris in November (with a lull in August). Such a tight timeline would be best repeated.

Our budget was in the range of 135,000€. [About $150,000 US at the time.]

We like to say we produced this for one-third of the price of a roundabout:

  • a methodology
  • a benchmark
  • a detailed, robust data model (started from scratch, with a final version handling 1500 variables)
  • a detailed policy brief in all major domains
  • a detailed sociology story which can be cross referenced to the data model (a unique case, to our knowledge)
  • a graphic identity
  • a political timeline
  • a methodological context note (with calls for further research into known unknowns)
  • a range of (very senior) expert inputs
  • a deep bibliography (including visual research)
  • a punchy editorial and conclusion, which officials could use for speeches / articles- an economic outline of the value creation models
  • an engagement strategy for citizens
  • and free follow-up talks
  • a slogan/brand (all this for the mere prospect of setting a metropolis of 2 million people on track to cope with the climate emergency)

Our recommendation is to pitch for a much bigger budget, it’s really not reassuring that major metropolises are investing so little in such crucial policy documents. 

A bigger budget should notably cover:

  • briefing time with all senior division heads in the municipal team + individual briefings of each of the Mayor’s senior team + CEOs of the major utilities operating in the territory + CEOs of the 4 biggest retail banks of the area ; our experience in this respect has been mixed; we did get to interact with senior elected officials twice during our assignment, but we still hear that some of the influential advisors/councillors don’t know the study 
  • a consumer friendly website
  • an operational budget to fund events/fund a project factory (to at least cover the requirements or specifications stages)
  • a “train the trainers” process to quickly train local ambassadors, able to relay / spread the core messages at a more granular territorial level 
  • a variant of the “train the trainers” process tailored to the needs of school teachers, preschools + universities (core focus on engineering, architecture, but also business schools and design institutions)
  • a “rapid response unit” able to fire quick answers to media requests / social network presence + help grow the community of followers
  • a media partnership
  • a production budget for a Netflix series (and a budget for creative writers to join the team, at least in observational roles, just so as to let them soak in the carbon neutrality culture: there are so many plots to think of, and such an emergency in diversifying the message)
  • a co-working space which would be the “home” for the team during the project + allow for partners/stakeholders to host some of their meetings there (elected officials, bankers, corporates, NGOs, artists…) + allow some form of residence for students / start-ups; the more vibrant the better; ideally, there would be food trucks + music + screenings of films there too.

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One of the difficulties that is yet to be cracked is: how do you move from the final deliverable of a report to the implementation of a report (at least a case not yet seen at the scale required). Running a “larger than life” carbon neutrality strategy would help increase its chances of actually engaging a change in usage patterns/investments and lead to a cut in emissions.

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My hunch is that such an enlarged version of the project would benefit from:

  • citizen groups helping raise funds on crowdfunding platforms
  • senior bankers hosting fundraisers in the townhouses
  • a matching process whereby insurers would add $1 for each public $
  • a donations box, inviting any concerned citizen to contribute to an operational fund
  • an option for taxpayers to voluntarily increase their taxes and allocate these additional taxes to the carbon transition plan (aka use the carbon neutrality strategy as a fund raiser for the City itself).
  • The idea would be to take the opportunity of the drafting of the plan to actually ACT while the plan is being drafted.

I’ve just met with friends at Systemiq in London and my hunch is that we’d be even more efficient with a support team dedicated to coalitions (a core feature of the governance conundrum, and one that will require quite a challenging coordination, at three levels:

  • at local level, ensuring that all walks of life contribute/take part
  • across cities, ensuring that best practices are shared, that cities align their procurement etc.
  • between metropolises and their hinterland (a core feature of our conclusions, and one that raises mind boggling legal, business, democratic issues)
  • We’d also need a strong contribution from business school/finance research teams, as the most challenging parts of the strategy will require new ideas + solutions (we’ve got ideas on how to leverage connections between business schools, territories, companies)
  • Finally, networks such as: We Mean Business, The Elders, the B-team
  • Fortune 100 billionaires based in NY
  • The museums (they reach out to millions of visitors each year)
  • The police and fire departments (they will need to become actively involved in the carbon story)

And we’d need to anticipate the format in which the conclusions of all this could be disseminated (see, in French: Signé PAP 15 – Comment l’allégorie des effets du bon gouvernement … 

I’m currently writing a book on this, think it’d be quite useful to release an English version soon too. [Julien’s book, Renaissance Ecologique, is out in French, hopefully with an English translation soon.]

There’s a lot more to do on the modelling too. On top of my list: how to model conflicts of usage in the land use allocation? How to model the systemic interaction with biodiversity and natural resources, in a sort of urban metabolism model? Where to set the threshold of the carbon budget, and what would that mean for the type of “large scale transformative projects” required for the long term?

On this last point, there’s a real conundrum coming up. Take the Grand Paris Express, the major construction program for a new set of metro lines in the greater Paris area. It’s a much needed catch-up investment into mass transit in areas which have been massively built-up and where population and population density have surged. Now, this will require a massive use of concrete to dig the tunnels, etc. And the latest figures indicate an energy payback time of 70 years. The worst possible case in the light of the urgent need to cut carbon emissions. Now, does that mean we should stop all rail projects? Which ones do we maintain? What are the alternatives? 


Some updates since Julien wrote this tremendous email in 2018:

In the ideal case, educational tools like briefing materials based on Paris 2050 or our game, Energetic, support citizen deliberation programs that allow the public to take the lead in driving the change that we need.