Governments are ignoring climate change. Cities must step up to the plate

Protesters in Paris in December 2015, during the signing of the international climate change agreement. Image: Getty.

Climate change poses a unique and growing threat to every city on Earth. This uncontroversial truth is precisely why more than 190 nations committed to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees.

Yet today it is mayors, rather than national leaders, who are proving to be the protectors of the Paris Agreement.

The executive order signed by President Trump, which rolls back many of the environmental and climate change regulations introduced under President Obama, signals the US federal government’s retreat from leadership on the climate change issue. By contrast, mayors from cities across the United States pledged to deliver on their commitments to the Paris Agreement, describing climate change as “both the greatest single threat we face, and our greatest economic opportunity for our nation”.

Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s climate and energy commissioner, struck a defiantly positive tone last week by declaring that “a new climate era has begun, and the EU and China are ready to lead the way”. It will be wonderful if he is right.

Domestically, China is certainly striding ahead towards a ‘new normal’ of environmentally sustainable economic growth. China’s investment in renewable energy last year was nearly double that of the next largest country, the US. Chinese cities are setting 2020 peak emissions targets, rolling out fleets of electric buses and taxis at a startling rate and, just last month, Beijing closed the city’s last coal power plant.

China’s leader, President Xi, has shown signs that his nation may be ready to step up to provide global leadership. In his speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, he urged that “all signatories must stick to” the terms of the Paris Agreement.

Yet it is unrealistic to think that this is going happen with the speed necessary to galvanise international delivery on emission reductions commensurate with what climate science demands.

In Europe, nations have embarked on two years of complex, expensive and painful negotiations on Britain’s exit from the European Union. The Brexit debate will inevitably draw focus from the urgent challenges facing our cities, especially climate change. German, French and other leaders are too focused on saving the European Union to think about saving the world. So whilst national leaders grapple with such issues and continue to build barriers, walls and tariffs, mayors focus on what the world needs and are getting the job done.

In every part of the world, it is mayors that are concretely tackling climate change with immediate and bold measures. This week, representatives of 12 cities from five continents met at London’s City Hall with leaders from major global financial institutions and urban infrastructure investors, at the C40 Financing Sustainable Cities Forum, supported by the Citi Foundation and WRI Ross Center. Their ambition is nothing less than creating a model of co-operation between the private sector and cities that has the potential to transform every city on Earth. Just as it always has been, London is open to this truly global collaboration.

The key now is to unlock the potential of cities. Research by the New Climate Economy found that almost $1trn of investment will be needed each year between now and 2020, to help deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement. This is a formidable amount of investment. Yet the data shows that investing in sustainable infrastructure would actually provide an economic benefit to global cities worth $16.6trn by 2050, due to savings made in energy bills and other costs.

The urgency of the climate crisis facing our cities means there isn’t a moment to lose. Mayors and city halls are working together, sharing ideas and harnessing the expertise of business, global financial institutions and citizens. They are committed to delivering on the ambition of the Paris Agreement and creating green, sustainable, healthy and prosperous cities.

Mark Watts is executive director C40 Cities.

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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