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Transport transformation critical to address climate change and universal access to safe, affordable, resilient mobility: UN Report

New and emerging technologies, from electric cars and buses to zero-carbon producing energy sources, as well as the policy innovations, are critical for combating climate change, but to be effective, they must ensure that transport strategies benefit everyone, including the poorest, according to a new United Nations multi-agency report launched today that provides a guide to achieving sustainable transport.

According to the new report, there is urgent need for transformative action that will accelerate the transition to sustainable transport globally. Transport solutions exist that can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, although the report cautions that without the right policies and investments, they will not bring change to where it is needed most, particularly to people in developing countries.
The report, launched just before the second UN Global Sustainable Transport Conference begins in Beijing, China, on 14 October, was prepared by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in close collaboration with 14 other UN agencies.

“Innovations, driven by new technologies, evolving consumer preferences and supportive policy making, are changing the transport landscape,” says Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in the report’s forward. “While they hold tremendous potential for hastening the transformation to sustainability, they also come with the risk that they could further entrench inequalities, impose constraints on countries in special situations, or present additional challenges for the environment.”

Change in transport key for climate action
The world is well off course in efforts to limit climate change to 1.5°C. With 95 per cent of the world’s transport energy still coming from burning fossil fuels, the transport sector produces a quarter of all energy-related emissions—and without major changes, are expected to increase.

The increasing emissions and rising temperatures are causing more extreme weather events, which in turn are also highly disruptive to transportation and transportation infrastructure. And it will take significant investments to ensure that transport infrastructure is upgraded to become climate resilient. A recent study found that the cost of adapting 53 ports in the Asia-Pacific region could range from $31 to $49 billion.

However, the World Bank estimates suggest that the overall net benefits of investing in resilient infrastructure in developing countries could amount to $4.2 trillion over the lifetime of new infrastructure—a $4 benefit for every dollar invested in resilience.

A low-carbon pandemic recovery could decrease expected emissions in 2030 by 25 per cent, particularly as a result of changes in the shipping, aviation and lifestyle sectors.

Transport critical for moving out of poverty
But at the same time, more than 120 million people were pushed into extreme poverty across the world in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over a billion people still lack access to an all‑weather road, and only about half the world’s urban population have convenient access to public transport. In Africa, about 450 million people, or more than 70 per cent of its total rural population, are estimated to still be unconnected to transport infrastructure and systems.

A lack of access to roads and transport contributes to deprivation in terms of access to timely health care, education, jobs and markets for agricultural produce. Rural isolation disproportionately harms the poor, older persons, persons with disabilities, children and women. Women and girls can face additional challenges when there are concerns about their physical safety.

Transport is especially costly for many of the world’s least developed countries, particularly those that are landlocked, and small island developing countries. Customs and border-crossing procedures, as well as long and often circuitous transit routes, mean that, from order to delivery, it takes landlocked-least developed countries nearly twice as long to import and export goods than others and have a higher average cost of export—$3,444 per container, than transit countries. In addition, landlocked least developed countries would need to construct almost 200,000 km of paved roads and 46,000 km of railway, at a cost of about $500 billion, equivalent to an average of around 2 per cent of GDP over a period of 20 years to catch up with transport accessibility in the rest of the world.

Road traffic injuries kill 1.3 million a year
Road traffic accidents are estimated to become fifth leading cause of death by 2030 and road traffic crashes killed about 1.3 million people worldwide in 2019, with 75 per cent of deaths among boys and men. Road traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death among young people aged 15–29 worldwide.

More than half the global road traffic deaths are among pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. In addition, between 20 and 50 million non-fatal injuries yearly are caused by road traffic crashes. The death rate was over 3.5 times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries, despite lower rates of vehicle ownership in developing countries.

Many local governments are taking steps to redesign streets and build more pedestrian and bicycle friendly public spaces. Data from developed regions show that there was a small increase in the adoption of active modes of transport in cities, especially bicycling, in response to the pandemic. Since 2020, many cities have built more bicycle lanes.

Innovative technologies and solutions
New innovative technologies, the report says, when appropriately applied, are key to solving many of the challenges to achieving sustainable transport. The deployment of existing solutions, such as low or zero-carbon vehicles, automated safety, and intelligent transport systems, must be accelerated.

These must be accompanied by the creation of new fuel, power, and digital infrastructures, including, for example, high-speed battery charging, while mitigating any harmful consequences.

Continuing with business-as-usual transport approaches will not accommodate the sharp demographic changes that are forecast. By 2030, annual passenger traffic will exceed 80 trillion passenger-kilometres—a 50 per cent increase over 2015 estimates, putting an additional 1.2 billion cars on the roads by 2030. In the absence of transformative change towards sustainable transport, could mean rising emissions, increasing air and noise pollution, and worsening trends in road safety.

Governments and international bodies need to provide the regulations, policies and incentives to accelerate the development and deployment of new transport technologies, including digital applications, while ensuring that no one is left behind.

The report also found that there is a need for standards and targets, such as for accelerating the phase-in of low-emissions technology accompanied by a winding down and phasing-out of deployment of fossil fuel-powered options.

“The clock is ticking on our 2030 timeline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and for meeting the objectives of the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” Mr. Liu said. “The forthcoming second Global Sustainable Transport Conference will be a landmark moment for stakeholders from across the world to discuss the challenges and opportunities, good practices and solutions.”

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