Op-Ed: Where Does SLoCaT Stand in Realizing Sustainable Transport?

Three years ago the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport slocat logo(SLoCaT) was established to address the relative absence of sustainable transport in the global discussions on sustainable development and climate change. Rapid motorization in the developing world and its negative impacts motivated the organizations that came together in SLoCaT. There was agreement that SLoCaT should initially have a mandate for three years only and that by the end of 2012 a decision would be made whether to call it a day or to go on, possibly, with a revised mission. Those three years have gone by. So where is SLoCaT now and what is next; declare victory and move on, admit defeat and move on, or stay in the fight?

To answer this question we should look first at some of the megatrends intransport, which motivated the establishment of SLoCaT.

Report by Cornie Huizenga,
Joint Convener Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport

Megatrends in Sustainable Transport

Motorization is still growing rapidly in most parts of the developing world with many cities experiencing growth rates of between 500 and 1000 new cars per day and some cities even more than that. Not only are developing countries buying more cars, they are now also producing many more with China overtaking the United States both as the largest vehicle market and producer. Few transport experts expected in 2009 that China would put quotas in place in its three largest cities, which restrict demand in these three cities by almost one million vehicles per year.

Motorcycles numbers continue to grow, not only in Asia, traditionally the largest market but also in new markets like Africa and Latin America. Policy makers are still struggling to give motorcycles a place in transport policies. Should they be tolerated, as is the case in many South and South-East Asian Countries or should their use be actively discouraged, as is the case in many Chinese cities?

Peak travel was in 2009 still largely an abstract concept talked about by a few number crunchers but has increasingly become an accepted fact of life in the developed world. Especially young people opt out of past traditions and postpone getting a drivers license or buying a car and generally drive less than their parents. At the same time car sharing is becoming increasingly popular but is likely to remain a niche solution in providing access and mobility in the foreseeable future.

In 2009 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was still a relative new concept largely limited to Latin America and discussions focused on the applicability of the concept, as developed originally in Curitiba, Brazil and then successfully scaled up in Bogota, Colombia to Asia and Africa. Both these continents now have their own leading examples through BRTs in Ahmedabad, India; Guangzhou, China; and Johannesburg, South Africa. BRTs have become a regular part of assistance programs in development organizations. Through the BRT standard initiated by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) there is now a system to help categorize the close to 200 BRT systems that are now operating or under development.

More and more cities, especially in Asia, are constructing metros although only few cities have the financial resources to be able to develop substantial networks that can take up a sizeable share of public transport trips.

BRTs and metros have caught a lot of attention and have largely dominated discussions on public transport but a very large share of public transport trips are still by informal transport modes, which also provide a livelihood to large numbers of people. As in the case of motorcycles decision makers struggle to decide on their approach on informal transport modes. Aim to phase –out these vehicles or make efforts to upgrade their environmental performance and safety?

Cycling is experiencing a global renaissance. Public bike schemes, such as the pioneering Vélib system, which started in 2007 in Paris, France, can now be found in hundreds of cities both in the developed and the developing world. Many cities are investing in developing segregated bicycle lanes. Although the modal share of cycling is increasing because of these interventions it generally is still very low and cycling is not yet a real alternative in most of the developing country cities.

In most large cities, walking is still the main mode of transport, especially for the poor. Relatively little has changed for this group. The importance of walking is better documented than in 2009 but investments in improving walking infrastructure have not substantially improved.

Compared to 2009 there is a better awareness of the importance of freight transport in terms of its contribution to economic development. The efficiency of freight transport and logistics in developing countries is about half of that of the developed world and in many developing countries amounts to 15-20% of GDP. Improving the environmental sustainability of transport will need a much stronger focus on freight transport; although less than 10% of the vehicle fleet freight vehicles contribute about 50% of road transport related GHGs and air pollutants.

Is Transport more Sustainable than in 2009?

Overall, transport is still far from sustainable. Millions of people still die because of road accidents exposure to air pollution from vehicles. Congestion is growing in many cities. Greenhouse gasses from transport are growing fast; in Asia at a faster rate than GDP. Fuel subsidies are still draining government budgets in many countries.

The discussion on sustainable transport has become more multifaceted and is increasingly less dominated by concerns on environmental sustainability only. Increasing action is being taken to improve poor road safety records. The rapid growth in numbers of vehicles has demonstrated that it is increasingly less viable to subsidize fuel. There is an increased recognition that making transport more sustainable will mean a combination of changes to existing transport as well as an expansion of transport infrastructure and services to provide new or better access to goods and services for hundreds of millions both in urban and rural areas that currently lack good access.

How to read these megatrends and where does it leave SLoCaT and its 2009 ambitions?

The population in developing countries will continue to grow and more and more people will live in cities. Hundreds of millions of people lack proper access to jobs, markets, goods and essential services. Disposable incomes of people will continue to grow and are looking at upgrading the manner in which they move. Continued economic growth will trigger further growth in transport. In short, we should anticipate a continued further grow in transport infrastructure, transport services and transport activity.

What has changed since 2009 when SLoCaT was established is the growing awareness of the need to make transport more sustainable, reduce congestion, make transport more safe and cleaner. This change in thinking is not limited to NGOs or development organizations that have been leading work on this but extends very much as well to city and national administrations. Efforts by cities like Bogota have been instrumental in demonstrating the viability of large-scale sustainable transport solutions.

Small pilot projects are increasingly being replaced by the implementation of large-scale sustainable transport investments and lessons learned are incorporated in local or national policy initiatives. At the same time in many countries and cities and also development organizations new insights and approaches on sustainable transport still have to compete with old established policies, which favor traditional motorization patterns.

India has been widely praised for its national urban transport policy and its programmatic approach to funding sustainable urban transport through the Jawahl Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission but at the same time the country allocates US$ 29 billion to fuel subsidies, which promote private motorization. Likewise, Indonesia has set economy wide GHG emission reduction targets which will also apply to the transport sector but, like India, has wide spread fuel subsidies. Mexico City has developed BRT, expanded the metro and established cycling infrastructure but at the same time pursued the expansion of urban highways.

Development banks in many respects are leading the way in promoting sustainable transport. At the same time they are still funding the construction of new roads albeit with greater attention for the sustainability of transport services making use of these new or rehabilitated roads.

There is recognition that the scales have started tipping towards more sustainable transport. Are they tipping fast enough to counteract the still progressing trend towards more cars? Are SLoCaT and its members doing enough and are they doing the right things to help tip the scales.

Realization of SLoCaT 2009 objectives

SLoCaT has been effective in bringing key stakeholders on sustainable, low carbon transport under one umbrella, more so than any other initiative before. SLoCaT members can be rightfully proud for being associated with a large number of best practices on sustainable, low carbon transport. Collectively they contributed to awareness raising on sustainable transport and this includes unprecedented coming together around the Avoid-Shift-Improve approach as a new and more sustainable paradigm for the development of transport infrastructure and services.

When it was established SLoCaT set out to promote sustainable, low carbon transport and its integration in the global discussions on climate change and sustainable development, local and national climate change and transport policies, and the activities of international development organizations.

All of these are unfinished agendas but varying degrees of progress have been made.

Transport was traditionally almost entirely missing in the international climate negotiations and instruments established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) such as the Clean Development Mechanism. Through persistent outreach activities, -including those by the Bridging the Gap Initiative-, capacity building and pilot projects transport is now the second largest sector for Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) submitted to UNFCCC or under development. The share of transport activities funded under climate change focus area of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is also increasing.

The large progress made in the development of modeling and assessing the GHG footprint of transport and associated policies, programs and projects has taken a key barrier away for the better integration of transport in climate change mitigation policies.

Transport is however still far away of having the same standing as the energy sector in climate change discussions and policy making. International climate change efforts in the next 3 years will be dominated by the development of a new global climate change agreement that should come into force by 2020 and the implementation of the outcome of the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action which will guide climate change mitigation efforts in the period 2012-2020. The latter include amongst others the implementation of NAMAs and the mobilization of additional climate change financing. Partly thanks to SLoCaT and the Bridging the Gap Initiative Transport is better placed than before to engage in a meaningful manner in UNFCCC related processes but it is by no means a foregone conclusion that it will be successful in taking up a role proportionate to its contribution to global GHG emissions (13% of total emissions and 24% of energy related emissions).

SLoCaT’s efforts to influence global policies on sustainable development initially took a backseat compared to its efforts on climate change and were limited to occasional contributions to the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). It needed to wait for the United Nations Conference ion Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012 to have a suitable global platform to pursue this objective. This had the advantage that SLoCaT and its members had time to coalesce around a number of common messages on sustainable transport. It also enabled SLoCaT to work with several of its members to develop a sizeable set of Voluntary Commitments on sustainable transport most prominent of which was the unprecedented $175 billion Voluntary Commitment for more sustainable transport made by eight MDBs. The momentum established by SLoCaT also helped to convince the negotiating parties to expand the coverage for sustainable transport and include it as a separate priority area for future action in “ The Future We Want”, the outcome document of Rio+20.

Another breakthrough for SLoCaT with respect to sustainable development was the integration of Sustainable Transport as one of the six building blocks for the post 2015 framework on sustainable development by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The announcement by the SG to convene stakeholders on sustainable transport with the aim to develop and take action on recommendations for sustainable transport was an important impetus for SLoCaT as a partnership and for some of its members to increase their support for SLoCaT activities. If the SG decides to act on the recommendation of the Technical Working Group (to which SLoCaT contributed heavily) to set up a High Level Group on Sustainable Transport this will significantly elevate sustainable transport as developmental topic in its own right.

The credibility of SLoCaT as a partnership promoting the integration of sustainable transport in the sustainable development agenda was further strengthened by the setting up of the Friends of Sustainable Transport (FoST) group among Missions to the UN. The Dutch and Thai Missions lead FoST to the UN and following a number of initial meetings will be formalized in the coming months. SLoCaT has been instrumental in helping to set up FoST and continues to work with the Dutch Mission by providing support to FoST meetings. Similar Friends groups on e.g. sustainable cities or sustainable energy have been instrumental in raising awareness on these respective topics in the UN context and have contributed to more prominence for these topics in international agreements on sustainable development. This in turn influences priority setting in resource allocation within the UN system as well as its willingness to set up dedicated institutional mechanisms.

Although promising SLoCaT’s achievements on sustainable transport and sustainable development are only a first step and much will depend on the manner in which follow-up is given to the Rio+20 conference and the recommendations of the TWG on convening sustainable transport stakeholders. On the former, will transport be acknowledged as a separate Sustainable Development Goal or will it still be clubbed together with energy or cities? On the latter, will the Secretary General follow the recommendations of the Technical Working Group to set up a High Level Group to convene sustainable transport stakeholders? If neither will materialize it will seriously set back SLoCaT efforts to promote the integration of sustainable transport in global policies on sustainable development.

An important early lesson from SLoCaT’s engagement in global discussions on climate change and sustainable development is that these are party driven processes and that decision making on global policies on sustainable development and climate change rests with national governments. In recognition of this SLoCaT has given its full support to the regional, intergovernmental Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST) Forums coordinated by the United Nations Center for Regional Development and an increasing number of SLoCaT members are now providing support to these EST Forums which started in Asia and which since then has been replicated in Latin America. An African EST Forum is currently under preparation. The aim of these regional EST Forums has been the development and incremental implementation of non-binding regional declarations, which bundle a series of sustainable transport related goals. SLoCaT ‘s support for the FoST group also aims to increase country engagement on sustainable, low carbon transport.

Much of the progress that SLoCaT so far has been made possible by the active support and engagement of several multilateral development banks and one bilateral development organization. SLoCaT was set up at a time when these development organizations had already started a process of reorienting their transport activities and it was logical for them to engage in SLoCaT and make use of this to build alliances with other organizations (e.g. UN and NGOs) that had similar interests. The latter, especially the NGOs, were keen to engage with the development banks to scale up the smaller scale pilot projects they had run until then. The active engagement of the MDBs greatly increased the credibility of SLoCaT. The $175 billion Rio+20 Voluntary Commitment for more sustainable transport by the MDBs was a game changer in terms of raising attention for sustainable transport.

The development banks have made good progress in making their transport operations more sustainable but as acknowledged by them more needs to be done. The further mainstreaming of sustainable transport and scaling up of funding for sustainable transport will increasingly need enabling policy and financing frameworks in the developing member countries of the MDBs. The core business of MDBs is to provide development financing and it can be expected that MDBs will continue to look at other organizations such as the UN and the Regional Economic and Social Commissions to facilitate the development of such enabling policy and financing frameworks. MDBs have started work on the development of innovative economic appraisal methodologies, which more truly reflect the wider economic, social and environmental impacts of transport policies, programs and projects. MDBs will continue to look at NGO and other knowledge partners to assist them in this endeavor.

Progress is being made on all of the four objectives SLoCaT set for itself in 2009. The progress has been partially conceptual, e.g. developing and rallying around the Avoid-Shift-Improve approach, development of GHG assessment tools and transport NAMA concept development; partially implementing, e.g. increasing the number and scale of sustainable transport projects and lining up financing for sustainable transport; but also process oriented, e.g. the TWG recommending the High Level Group on Sustainable Transport, support to the FoST group and contributing towards the regional EST Forums.

Next steps for SLoCaT

How to make certain that these unfinished agendas get completed? What contribution can SLoCaT continue to make?

The past three years have driven the message home that it is neither desirable nor possible to separate the climate change dimension from the wider developmental impacts of transport. Interventions to effectively address climate change in the transport sector require emission reductions by literally millions of cars each of which behaves potentially differently. Climate related policies and interventions in the transport sector usually have benefits other than GHG emission reduction, which almost always are more important in the eyes of decision makers than the climate benefits.

Combining climate change and sustainable development policy processes might be important, and essential from the transport sector’s perspective, it will not be easy though and SLoCaT will have to work within the institutional limitations of the respective processes on climate change and sustainable development. SLoCaT can stimulate more active cooperation among different advocacies on sustainable, low carbon transport, i.e. groups working on improved road safety, air pollution, fuel subsidies and groups working on low carbon transport. The experiences of the last years have taught that the Avoid-Shift-Improve approach works well to integrate the specific agendas of these different advocacies.

Developing country governments have expressed concerns that the promotion of low carbon transport should not constrain their efforts to promote economic and social development and improve the access of goods and services. It is important therefore to communicate clearly that this is not the intention but that it is important to balance the development of private motorization with the development of public transport, walking and cycling as well as the development of railways and inland water ways for freight and passenger transport. It is important in this context to follow up on the recommendation of the TWG on convening sustainable transport stakeholders to develop a conclusive economic, social and environmental case for sustainable transport. Such analysis can explain that the overall financial and economic as well as social and environmental costs of a sustainable, low carbon oriented approach to the development of the transport sector alternative approach are lower than the Business as Usual car centric scenario.

To advance in realizing the four objectives of SLoCaT (promote sustainable, low carbon transport and its integration in the global discussions on climate change and sustainable development, local and national climate change and transport policies, and the activities of international development organizations) it will have to quickly mobilize a larger critical mass to engage in awareness raising, the development of detailed initiatives to promote and implement sustainable transport and lobby for these. Much of the work on this will need to be carried out by different organizations working on sustainable transport. To be effective it is important to increase coordination and cooperation and where possible create synergies. Although many of the organizations who will be working on this are a member of the SLoCaT partnership it is beyond the current capacity and structure of SLoCaT to facilitate and coordinate such intensified efforts on sustainable, low carbon transport.

The loose network structure of SLoCaT of the last three years was appropriate in raising initial awareness on sustainable, low carbon transport and helped to realize the progress described above. If transport wants to replicate the successes of forestry in the climate change process which resulted in the establishment of REDD, a dedicated forestry mechanism, or the success of energy in climate change and sustainable development through the Sustainable Energy 4 ALL initiative it will be important to move beyond the current loose structure with a very limited secretariat capacity to a more defined organizational set up with a greater capacity to follow-up and engage in relevant processes. At the same time it is important that this is not at the expense of direct engagement by SLoCaT members. To make true progress they will also have to increase their involvement in global, regional and national policy making on sustainable, low carbon transport.

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You are cordially invited to contact the author at cornie.huizenga@slocatpartnership.org with your comments and suggestions, as well as to comment directly here.  For further information on the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), click here. For a listing of SLoCaT’s extensive international membership, click here.

About the author:

Cornie Huizenga is Joint Convener of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT). He has a distinguished career of over 20 years in development in which he has dealt with various environmental issues. He managed projects in Pakistan targeting domestic energy saving for Afghan refugees and the local population in Pakistan. Following this he set up and managed for four years a consulting company focusing on institutional development and environmental management. After a brief spell in which he advised the Asian Development Bank on its operational business processes he had a lead role in the establishment and institutionalization of the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia) which has grown into the leading regional initiative on urban air quality in Asia. Cornie  served as its Executive Director until the end of 2008.

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About the editor

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