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Less carbon, more automation—Covid lessons became key agendas for Asia-Pacific at UNESCAP

Poor connectivity in the Asia-Pacific became clear during Covid-19. Before we get back on track, transport needs to change.

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

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.

New programme, old goals

It is against this backdrop that the officials meeting at the UNESCAP for the fourth Ministerial Conference on Transport are debating the Regional Action Programme (RAP) for 2022-2026. It will devise a new roadmap for a transport system to attain the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The RAP will address issues such as increasing freight and passenger volumes that reflect in rising demand for freight transport and mobility. Indeed, two-thirds of the global seaborne trade is concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, which 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 the coming yearS.

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Key priorities—more digital, less carbon

To cope with such changes and demands, the RAP will encourage greater digitalisation and innovation for transport. As the pandemic unfolded, we saw that the accelerated adoption of digital technologies helped governments and private enterprises keep the systems running amid border closures and other containment measures. Furthermore, the 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 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 CO2-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 the sustainability of international freight transport and result in 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, last month, the ESCAP unveiled plans for an Asia-Pacific Initiative on Electric Mobility at the climate change conference in Glasgow. 

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 General Assembly has proclaimed 2021 to 2030 as the Second Decade of Action for Road Safety, with a goal of cutting road traffic deaths and injuries by half. In response, the  ESCAP is preparing an Asia-Pacific Regional Plan of Action.

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Countries worked together during pandemic, still can

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, the Trans-Asian Railway, and dry port networks established under the 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 seamlessly integrated web of intermodal transport connections underpinning the regional and global economy.

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, thereby inhibiting the capacity of the sector to equally address the social dimensions of sustainable development. 

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted progress in Asia and the Pacific in many of the SDGs, and in some cases, it reversed years of achievement. The transport sector, which is instrumental to attaining the goals, took a significant hit during the pandemic. But countries demonstrated the ability to swiftly move towards automation and innovation to maintain functionality and resilience, and support access to social inclusion. This also points to the capacity of the sector to take bold new steps towards low-carbon development. The RAP can 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.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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