Decarbonising all Means of Transport Key for Sustainable Growth, Says UN

Galvanise action to build sustainable transport systems for a green, inclusive and equitable future, remarked UN Secretary General António Guterres at the Second Global Sustainable Transport Conference in Beijing on 14 October.

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Five years after the first Global Sustainable Transport Conference was held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, the critical role of transport in growth, sustainable development and securing the health of our planet has only become clearer. When economies were brought to a standstill at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the most dramatic impacts were felt in the transport sector—starting with job losses. Global road transport activity went down by half.  Air traffic demand in 2020 was just one-third of the previous year.  While this translated into fewer traffic accidents, improved air quality and a rapid drop in greenhouse gas emissions, those temporary gains have not been sustained.

Massive declines in the use of public transit—a lifeline that enables essential workers and those living in poverty to earn a living—threatened its financial viability.  Some essential transport workers in cities, and seafarers trapped on ships, were forced to work in unsafe and inhumane conditions.  Communities, economic sectors and even entire countries that depend on tourism faced enormous losses in revenue.  In some small island developing States, tourism represents as much as 80 per cent of exports, which disappeared overnight.And as a deeply uneven recovery gets under way, there has been further disruption to global supply chains.

The interconnected nature of transport, global consumption, trade and the economy is clear; but the response lacks the solidarity needed for an inclusive global recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that transport is far more than a means of getting people and goods from A to B.  It is fundamental to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement, which were badly off-track even before the pandemic hit.

“The pandemic has pushed an estimated 120 million people into extreme poverty, 160 million into hunger, and set back education for around 100 million children.  We are further from realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on climate, ocean, and biodiversity than we were when they were agreed six years ago.  We are already close to the 1.5°C upper limit agreed in Paris.  The door is closing for action on climate, nature and pollution. We must act together, smartly, and quickly, to make the next nine years count.

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Transport, which accounts for more than one-quarter of global greenhouse gases, is key to getting on track.

We must decarbonise all means of transport in order to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 globally”, said UN Secretary‑General António Guterres.He added that “We know how to make this happen.  First, we must accelerate the decarbonization of the entire transport sector. Let’s be honest. While Member States have made some initial steps through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization to address emissions from shipping and aviation, current commitments are not aligned with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.  In fact, they are more consistent with warming way above 3°C.”

Adopting a new set of more ambitious and credible targets that are truly consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement must be an urgent priority for both these bodies in the months and years ahead.

The priorities are clear: phase out the production of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 for leading manufacturing countries, and by 2040 for developing countries; zero emission ships must be the default choice, and commercially available for all by 2030, in order to achieve zero emissions in the shipping sector by 2050; companies must start using sustainable aviation fuels now, in order to cut carbon emissions per passenger by 65 per cent by 2050.

All stakeholders have a role to play, from individuals changing their travel habits to businesses transforming their carbon footprint. Governments must incentivize clean transport options, including through standards and taxation, and impose stricter regulation of infrastructure and procurement. In developed countries, transport policies that encourage cycling and walking in urban areas, rather than driving short distances, can contribute to progress across the SDGs on climate, health, pollution and more.

Outlining the priorities in this regard, Guterres said that sustainable railway systems should be upgraded and expanded for medium and long-distance travel for people and goods, to increase efficiency and encourage shifts in behavior. Second, we must close access and safety gaps. This means helping more than 1 billion people to access paved roads, with designated space for pedestrians and bicycles, and providing convenient public transit options.  It means providing safe conditions for all on public transport by ending harassment and violence against women and girls, and reducing deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents. Third, we must build resilience into transport systems.  Investments in the recovery from COVID-19 must target sustainable transport, generating decent jobs and opportunities for isolated communities. Public transport should be the foundation for urban mobility.  Per dollar invested, it creates three times more jobs than building new highways.

Decarbonisation must go hand in hand with a just and inclusive transition to reduce inequalities and supports the poorest communities.

Much existing infrastructure, from ports to public transit, is vulnerable to extreme climate events which are happening with greater frequency and severity.  We need better risk analysis and disaster planning, even as we scale up solutions.  Increased finance for climate adaptation is essential for investment in sustainable, resilient transport systems, especially in developing countries.  The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underscored that the target of USD100 billion in climate financing from the developed to the developing world is an under-estimate, but even this is far from being reached.

Guterres reiterated his call for half of all climate finance, in support of developing countries, to be allocated to adaptation. He said, “We must funnel both public and private resources towards sustainable infrastructure in developing countries to drive a recovery from the pandemic that accelerates progress across the SDGs.”

He said, fourth, and finally, “we must work together more coherently. We need effective partnerships, including with the private sector, that help to share knowledge, bridge silos, and direct finance and technological capacity towards our common goals. The transformative potential of sustainable transport can only be unleashed if improvements translate into poverty eradication, decent jobs, better health and education, and increased opportunities for women and girls.

Countries have much to learn from each other.  The next nine years must see a global shift towards renewable energy.  Sustainable transport is central to that transformation.  There is still a long way to go, but Guterressaid, he is encouraged by some of the commitments made by Governments, local authorities and the private sector, in the context of this Conference and in the lead-up to COP [Twenty-sixth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], and look forward to seeing them implemented.