The CNRS's low-carbon transition is progressing

The first tangible effects of the CNRS's low-carbon transition plan can be seen a little over a year after the plan's launch. Let's take a look at the main successes.

One paradox of sustainable development is that the immediate effects are not always immediately apparent. Blandine De Geyer, the CNRS's national sustainable development officer, explains that the implementation of a transition plan like that of the CNRS "requires a period of awareness-raising and support work at the institutional level to make sure all the working groups are on board with the ideas and to make the project a long-term fixture. Nevertheless, when we're working on leading the network of officers, we can clearly see the momentum generated in our seventeen regional offices and ten scientific Institutes little over a year after our transition plan was launched".

In fact, the CNRS's low-carbon transition plan launched at the end of 2022 has progressed surely and step-by-step, giving tangible form to whole areas of the environmental transition.


Raising awareness and training - the first lever for initiating an overall approach

Among the elements given tangible form, Patrice Guyomar, the sustainable development officer at the CNRS's East Occitania regional office, worked on activating the "first lever for getting people on board and driving an overall approach", namely raising awareness and training staff members in environmental issues. Patrice and his colleague Fanny Verhille, training manager at the East Occitania regional office, set up an initial series of training courses between February 2023 and January 2024 on the Climate Fresk. A total of nine people from the CNRS and its partners in Montpellier took part in the first training course and are now part of the pool of CNRS 'Climate Fresk' team leaders.

Setting up this kind of training package – unprecedented at the CNRS – was not without obstacles as Patrice Guyomar sums up. "We constantly had to make sure to strike a balance between the urgent need to get things done and the effectiveness of a successful structured action plan". Among other difficulties encountered, the two had to answer questions from staff members about the idea of becoming a fresco team leader as this new role that made many apprehensive. "Being a fresco team leader above all means driving change and implementing our institutional approach through tangible actions like creating and publicising the various frescoes", Fanny Verhille explains reassuringly. "Everyone can adjust their involvement to fit in with their work. Above all, we aim to support staff in implementing this new cross-functional mission".


Une Fresque du climat
A Climate Fresk. © Xfigpower / Creative Commons


Towards eco-responsible purchasing

Alongside its awareness-raising endeavours, the CNRS also implemented measures to reduce its carbon impact. Various areas were assessed in its carbon footprint assessment in 2019 and purchasing was found to account for 74% of the total impact. Logically enough, moving towards eco-responsible practices to reduce the organisation's carbon footprint is now the watchword for the Purchasing and Innovation Office (DDAI) whose director Sébastien Turci explains that henceforth the CNRS "buys less to buy better". This is why the CNRS published its instructions on eco-responsible purchasing in May 2023, three years before the legal obligation for all public purchasers to do so. This document stipulates that all regional purchasers should include environmental criteria in their formalised contracts from June 1st.

This powerful gesture was followed by the DDAI's creation of a working group made up of regional purchasing officers tasked with making a more exhaustive list of similar criteria for the different purchasing segments they work on. Buyers can now request tangible commitments from their suppliers as regards packaging, transport, recyclability or equipment repairs. The construction of this national matrix is a first step towards the CNRS's mandatory implementation by the end of the year of the future national 'Spaser' scheme intended to promote socially and environmentally responsible public purchasing1 . Sébastien Turci considers that the aim of working this way is "to increase everyone's skill levels including buyers and those making purchase requests in laboratories as well as their suppliers, the idea being to move towards a virtuous circle of eco-responsible purchasing".


Catering – a testing ground for sustainable development

The effects of these criteria on laboratory purchasing orders may be pending but one purchasing segment has already begun its transformation, namely contract catering. Virginie Mahdi, the deputy regional representative for West Occitania, explains that this sector is well-suited to becoming "a testing ground for CSR2 ". Her regional office is piloting the scheme for the CNRS and will be running tests of this kind from January 1st 2025 – after the renewal of the CNRS's collective catering contract which is the organisation's most significant purchasing agreement with around 1100 meals served per day. The new contract will feature the introduction of "very advanced" social and environmental criteria accounting for up to 20% of supplier evaluations compared to the current minimum recommendation of 10% set out in the CNRS's current instructions on eco-responsible purchasing. Virginie Mahdi explains that the regional office in Toulouse evaluated various service providers to assess the market and then opted to "reduce the diversity of the offer to refocus on product quality". This means the end for individual plastic bottles and pots of yoghurt and fruit compotes which are now served in 'tetra paks' and hard containers alongside organic products from short circuits. Unsold products will either be resold to cafeteria users at the end of a day or donated to associations.

The same applies to the Paris-Normandy regional office's cafeteria at the Paris head office which serves 350 people per day and is of "exemplary strategic value" according to Anthony Venier, buyer and sustainable development officer. His own regional office will follow Toulouse's example as of March 1st 2025 by reducing the meals on offer from seven or eight starters and desserts to three of each to reduce wastage which represented up to sixteen tonnes of bio-waste for 2023. However, Anthony Venier also understands the economic difficulties faced by catering service providers and thus considers that "we're also working to make it financially viable for our service provider". Céline Andreu, the catering study officer from the CNRS's Human Resources Department, agrees with this standpoint. "The hardest thing is to keep the contract attractive enough for catering service providers in a context of inflation while also integrating environmental issues and concerns".

The Provence-Corsica regional office has already negotiated with its service provider for the latter to adopt more eco-responsible practices into its cafeteria catering in advance of the 2026 renewal of its contract. The 'Carboneutre' working group led by the sustainable development officer Virginie Blanc Schwander had highlighted the cafeteria's significant carbon impact in her regional office's greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis. She was surprised to find out that "catering was our third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions with nearly 50 tonnes eqCO2 behind purchasing with 237 tonnes and travel to work with 56 tonnes!" This surprise discovery motivated the members of the working group to go further, particularly Valérie Léon who manages the Marseille regional office's social action budget. She made enquiries with her current service provider and other suppliers and was able to work with the restaurant manager to "improve the quality and quantity of vegetarian options and raise awareness among customers before the new specifications were even developed". Currently 15% of staff members eat vegetarian meals although apparently that figure goes up to 20% when ravioli is on the menu!


Un exemple de plat végétarien au restaurant administratif du campus marseillais
An example of a vegetarian dish cooked in the cafeteria on the Marseille campus. © Valérie Léon / Délégation Provence et Corse CNRS


More energy-efficient buildings

Energy consumption in buildings and travel to and from the work place together account for almost 15% of the CNRS's greenhouse gas emissions. Although this is behind purchasing in the CNRS's carbon footprint analysis, these two areas have benefited from mitigation measures with relatively quick implementation times. The drastic reduction in energy consumption at the CNRS certainly testifies to this. In just a year, the organisation has cut its energy consumption by nearly 8% and has almost reached the 10% threshold imposed by ministerial directives. This significant reduction can firstly be explained by the insulation work the CNRS has carried out on is buildings. For example, last year the Laboratory for Analysis and Architecture of Systems reduced its electricity consumption by 37% and its gas consumption by 80% compared with the 2017 figures. This is due to the installation of photovoltaic panels and modulating dampers on the ventilation systems, a heat recovery system being installed and enhanced energy expenditure management. The same goes for the Jean-Zay supercomputer. Recycled waste heat from its cooling process now heats the entire building housing the supercomputer plus the equivalent of 1000 new homes on the Saclay plateau. The development of professional networks of technical building correspondents and sustainable development officers combined with awareness-raising initiatives for scientific communities have made it easier to share experiences and best practices in terms of energy efficiency.


The CNRS gets on its bike

Using a car is often an individual (and thermal) practice which accounts for 87% of the emissions from the home-to-work journeys of the organisation's 33,000 employees. To reduce the greenhouse gas emissions linked to this practice, the CNRS has introduced a national policy to promote soft mobility, particularly cycling which will be the subject of the upcoming 'Mai à vélo' challenge to be held in May. For the first time, CNRS staff members who travel to work by bike will be able to compete under a shared national banner. Julie Quillé is the sustainable development officer for the Alsace regional office and has promoted cycling for a long time now. This year she is coordinating this 'Mai à velo' event for the CNRS and cites a few figures to demonstrate the importance of widespread cycling to and from the workplace: "Last year in Alsace, 44 people from the Alsace regional office took part in the interdepartmental 'Au boulot à vélo'3 challenge and covered a total of over 7000 km. If we count the 14 teams involving CNRS staff members, the total is 45,777.7 km in 2023". Just a little more than one actual round-the-world journey!

The 'Mai à vélo' challenge will of course get staff members involved next month but the CNRS is also hoping to encourage its personnel to continue to travel by bike by setting up long-term facilities and measures. Séverin Baron, the deputy national sustainable development officer, points out that "cycling is a way of both mitigating and adapting to climate change". To achieve this, the CNRS aims to install dedicated parking spaces on 75% of its sites by the end of the year and 100% by 2027 through the national 'Employeur pro vélo' and 'Alvéole Plus' programmes. The organisation also aims to increase the percentage of its staff members benefitting from the national sustainable mobility package from 10% currently to 20% within three years in accordance with the 'Eco-responsible public services' circular.

The CNRS hopes cycling will become even more widespread as it offers several other benefits for the CNRS and its staff members. As well as helping lower CO2 and pollutant emissions, cycling to work offers health benefits from physical activity, improves the quality of life at work and makes it possible to reallocate space for biodiversity. On the health front, studies have estimated that each kilometre travelled on a bicycle saves around a euro in health costs in France4 .

Indeed every kilometre on a bike and every step forward taken contribute to the advancement of the CNRS's low-carbon transition. The next steps in the organisation's environmental transformation will be the definition of the 'Spaser' and a 'Sustainable Development & Corporate Social Responsibility' master plan along with a second plan to take our impact on biodiversity into account to a greater degree.


Le CNRS participe pour la première au challenge "Mai à vélo" sous une bannière commune. © CNRS
The CNRS compete for the first time to the challenge "Mai à vélo" under a shared national banner. © CNRS


  • 1The 'Spaser' plan is a tool for determining public procurement objectives with integrated focus on social and environmental aspects. Its aim is to encourage public purchasers to make responsible purchases. It is also part of the national action plan for sustainable public purchasing.
  • 2Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) involves companies voluntarily integrating social and environmental concerns into their activities and relations with stakeholders. In other terms, CSR represents companies' responses to the challenges of sustainable development. An organisation practising CSR strives to make a positive impact on society while remaining economically viable.
  • 3'Come to work on a bike'.
  • 4