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Geologic Column
The View From Chamonix
Fred Schwab

Geotimes deadlines dictated that I write this column in July, while vacationing in Chamonix, France, a picturesque town of 10,000 that sits at 1,036 meters above sea level, directly beneath the 4,807-meter summit of Mont Blanc. Being surrounded by the Alps and spoiled by inexpensive red wine, frogs legs and fleeting glimpses of Lance Armstrong’s legs as the Tour de France streams past, fortuitously add a French accent to my views on energy and the environment.

Mont Blanc looms over Chamonix, France. Photo by Claudia Schwab.

Cars and houses are smaller and more energy efficient in France. My six-speed Renault is diesel-powered as are 60 percent of newly registered French cars (compared with 3 percent in the United States), according to BBC News. Diesel fuel is 20 percent cheaper than gasoline. I am paying $5 per gallon in Chamonix, but getting 45 to 50 miles per gallon (mpg). The fleet average fuel efficiency for European Union vehicles is 42 mpg, for Japan, 47 mpg, and for the United States, a measly 24 mpg (down from 26 mpg just a few years ago), according to a 2004 report prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. In the United States, 97 percent of the people who drove to work in 2000 did so alone, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, compared with 62 percent in 1980. Americans drove their vehicles almost 10,000 miles each in 2001, compared with less than 7,000 miles in 1980.

Why these differences? After the oil shocks of the 1970s, the French government imposed high taxes on petroleum in an effort to decrease the role of oil in its economy. As a result, there are now countless tangible signs of conservation. My most recent fill-up in Chamonix was at a sparkling clean, energy-efficient BP station powered by solar panels. Our Chamonix apartment has a master switch that we flip whenever we leave to eliminate energy waste. Corridors are typically unlit. A timer briefly illuminates them as occupants enter and exit. Central air-conditioning is rarer than the hot, muggy days of this summer’s “canicule” (dog-days heat wave). In many French homes, individual room thermostats and space heaters make it possible to only heat areas when people are actually in them.

France has 59 nuclear installations scattered about the country, which generate 80 percent of its electricity. The United States’ 103 nuclear plants actually produce more electricity, but less than 20 percent of our total electrical need. As a result, French per capita carbon dioxide emissions are roughly one-third of ours in the United States.

The French obsession with electricity is evident in the continued expansion of its long-distance, high-speed rail system, its growing network of municipal tramways and its ubiquitous electrically powered buses. The bottom-line: Oil use in France is 10 percent lower today than it was three decades ago, whereas it’s almost 20 percent higher in the United States. Total energy consumption in France per capita is roughly half that of the United States.

Two big international competitions have been decided during our stay. France lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics, but won the competition to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). This $12 billion to $15 billion project is jointly funded by France, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Russia and the United States. At the ITER site in Cadarache, a small town in southern France 50 kilometers northeast of Marseilles, scientists will try to technologically master the process of harnessing nuclear fusion, which produces no greenhouse gases, generates only easy-to-handle waste and relies on abundant fuel sources such as water rather than uranium-235.

The French have chosen a different direction. Can we learn from them? Have we deemphasized nuclear power and conservation prematurely? The energy bill passed at the end of July makes some concessions to help reboot our nuclear power program; it fails to resuscitate conservation. We burn 20 million barrels of oil per day; 60 percent is imported, and 40 percent is consumed by cars and trucks. If Congress were to tax $2 per gallon of gasoline, the United States could eventually reduce its oil consumption by as much as 10 million barrels of oil per day, according to an energy plan by economist Philip Verleger (The Washington Post, June 1, 2004). Other strategies could include requiring light trucks to be as fuel efficient as cars and reducing the national speed limit (a strategy employed during the 1970s oil crisis — see story, page 57).

The balcony of our apartment provides a to-die-for view of the “roof of Europe,” the summit of Mont Blanc. The Bossons glacier flows down its slopes, directly fed by snowfall on the peak. As my wife and I hiked to the glacier’s nose, which lies at 1,180 meters (the lowest altitude for a glacier in the Alps), we examined the series of trailside photos and paintings that dramatically document repetitious waxing and waning of the ice front over the past few centuries. This candid exhibit strengthens my conviction that the French government, together with the daily print and broadcast media, provides its citizens with more mature and sophisticated information on energy use, natural climate cycles and anthropomorphic climate change than is the case in the United States.

The French perspective is enlightening, but they too have made mistakes. As reported in the July 10 International Herald Tribune, directly beneath the Mont Blanc Massif lies the 11.6-kilometer-long highway tunnel to Italy. Opened in July 1965, it funnels tourists and trucks through the Alps year-round. Pollution and haze now scar the Chamonix Valley as 1,500 trucks a day pass through.

As I write, a 9-kilometer-long double-lane queue of trucks awaits passage in convoy. Some carry shrimp from Denmark to be cleaned by lower-wage workers in Morocco. The shrimp will then be shipped back to Denmark for consumption. That’s as foolish as some of the ways we in the United States use and abuse energy.

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

Related Story:

"October 17, 1973: OPEC Oil Embargo," Geotimes Benchmarks, October 2005 print exclusive

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