Environment & energy, International relations | Asia, The Pacific, The World

14 December 2021

The transport sector took a serious hit from the pandemic, but its innovative responses show the sector can take bold new steps toward lower-carbon development, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana writes.

Transport ministers from across Asia and the Pacific are meeting this week to consider a potentially transformational agenda for how people and goods are moved around the region and across the globe.

Pre-COVID-19 transport connectivity weaknesses in the Asia-Pacific region became even more apparent during the pandemic: landlocked developing countries, least developed countries and small island developing states were particularly affected. Therefore, it is imperative that we accelerate meaningful change in transport systems as countries seek to put their development agendas back on track.

It is against this backdrop that officials meeting at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) for the fourth Ministerial Conference on Transport are debating a Regional Action Programme for 2022-2026: a new roadmap for a transport system needed to attain the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The new Regional Action Programme (RAP) would address such issues as increasing freight and passenger volumes, reflecting rising demand for freight transport and mobility. Indeed, two-thirds of global seaborne trade is concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, which also is home to nine of the world’s busiest container ports.

The region is currently responsible for more than 40 per cent of the global surface freight transport flows and by 2050 the continent’s demand for freight transport is projected to triple. Asia and the Pacific are expected to face greater trade exchanges, further substantial demographic growth and rapid urbanisation coupled with high motorisation rates in coming years.

To cope with such changes and demands, the RAP would encourage greater digitalisation and innovation for transport; as the pandemic unfolded, we saw that accelerated adoption of digital technologies helped governments and private enterprises keep activities going amid border closures and other containment measures.

More on this: All aboard India’s transport revolution

Further deployment of smart transport systems to improve efficiency, resilience as well as social and environmental sustainability is undoubtedly a key priority for building back better.

Other key provisions of the RAP include speeding up transitions to low-carbon transport systems. The transport sector is one of the highest contributors to climate change and Asia and the Pacific remain among the highest carbon emitting regions in the world.

There is a strong need for rapid decarbonisation of the regional transport networks and related operations, including urban and public transport. Shifting to railways would also greatly boost sustainability of international freight transport and move to a more sustainable post-COVID-19 world.

An abundance of renewable energy in some countries is an opportunity to switch to electric mobility in public transport. To support these efforts, at the climate change conference in Glasgow last month ESCAP unveiled plans for an Asia-Pacific Initiative on Electric Mobility.

In this vein, the outbreak of COVID-19 also had a profound impact on urban transport, accessibility, and mobility. These challenges provide new momentum to transport and city planners to rethink forms of mobility as a service that is affordable, accessible, reliable, and safe.

Furthermore, gender gaps and inequalities in terms of access to transport and related opportunities persist, further inhibiting the capacity of the sector to equally address the social dimensions of sustainable development.

More on this: Cities and the Sustainable Development Goals

In the context of sustainable development, we cannot disregard the fact that 60 per cent of global road crash fatalities occur in the Asia and Pacific region. The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2021 to 2030 the second Decade of Action for Road Safety, with a goal of cutting by half road traffic deaths and injuries; in response, ESCAP is preparing an Asia-Pacific Regional Plan of Action.

International freight transport remained largely operational throughout the pandemic, as countries took policy measures to preserve freight transport connectivity to support supply chains.

The Asian Highway, Trans-Asian Railway and dry port networks established under ESCAP auspices serve as the backbone for land transport infrastructure connectivity and logistics in the region.

They are also increasingly integrated with inter-regional transport corridors and port and shipping networks. In 2020 and 2021, these links brought countries together to capture and analyse their responses to the pandemic and the impacts of those actions on regional connectivity.

Moving forward, they can be further leveraged to promote infrastructure and operational connectivity reforms in support of a seamless integrated web of intermodal transport connections underpinning the regional and global economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted progress in Asia and the Pacific towards many of the SDGs and, in some cases, reversed years of achievement. The transport sector, which is instrumental to attaining the SDGs, took a significant hit during the pandemic, but countries demonstrated an ability to move swiftly towards automation and innovation to maintain functionality and resilience, and support access to social inclusion.

This points to the capacity of the sector to take bold new steps towards low-carbon development. A new Regional Action Programme could prove to be pivotal in addressing the region’s lagging performance and enhancing resilience to future crises by reducing deep-rooted social, economic, and environmental challenges.

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