Sustainable and resilient transport amidst persistent disruptions, climate risks and geopolitical concerns

SDG indicators
SDG target 9.1: Develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and transborder infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all
SDG indicator 9.1.2: Passenger and freight volumes, by mode of transport (Tier I)

Infrastructure, including transport infrastructure, directly and indirectly influences the attainment of all the SDGs, including 92 per cent of the 169 individual targets -—
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Transport infrastructure and services enable trade, support global supply chains, propel growth and promote social progress. While multimodality is key to door-to-door delivery of goods, maritime transport is the dominant mode, accounting for over 80 per cent of world merchandise trade by volume and more than 70 per cent of its value -—
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The transport sector is highly exposed to global risks and disruptive shocks that dislocate transport networks and supply chains, including pandemics such as COVID-19 or, for instance, the six-day blockage of the Suez Canal in March 2021 after the grounding of the 20 000 TEU container ship, the ‘Ever Given’. Other factors driving uncertainty and challenging the sustainability and the resilience of the sector include inward-looking trade policies, constrained supply-side capacity, geopolitical threats, unsustainable energy use, environmental degradation and climate change -—
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The COVID-19 disruption underscored the importance of transport and maritime transport infrastructure as essential sectors for the continued delivery of critical supplies and global trade in time of crisis, during the recovery stage and when resuming normality. The pandemic can be seen as a wake-up call which revealed just how important transport is, and in particular how important ports are for global supply chains and for keeping trade flowing. The unprecedented health crisis has shown how vulnerable the sector is to shocks and disruptions. While the pandemic has put global shipping networks and supply chains to the test and laid bare their frailties, climatic factors are delivering a further blow, for instance due to extreme weather events, such as floods, hurricanes and cyclones.

In 2022, the world continues to fight the pandemic and plan for the recovery while global trade and value chains continue to grapple with strained supply chains, soaring freight rates and increased costs. The ongoing supply chain crisis as well as the heightened threat to supply chains and transport resilience arising from the recent war in Ukraine are weighing heavily on the sustainability and resilience of transport infrastructure services. The cumulative effect of the COVID-19 disruption and the Ukraine war is expected to heavily weigh on developing countries’ recovery and sustainable development prospects. The sector is also facing concerns relating to potential shifts in supply chain design and globalization patterns, new consumption and spending habits, a growing focus on risk assessment, adaptation, resilience-building, and digital transformation, as well as a heightened global sustainability and low-carbon agenda -—
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Devising policies that promote sustainable and inclusive long-term growth is crucial -—
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. While access to affordable, reliable and cost-effective transport systems remains a challenge for many developing countries, especially for LLDCs and SIDS, mainstreaming sustainability and resilience, in particular according to climate criteria, into transport designs, development plans and management, is an imperative -—
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. Integrating measures such as risk assessment and management, event and risk forecasting and business continuity plans has also become critical. As part of UN action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNCTAD and the UN Regional Commissions are currently implementing a joint technical assistance project on “transport and trade connectivity in the age of pandemics: contactless, seamless and collaborative UN solutions” -—
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. Relevant outputs include, among others, advice and guidance on some of the complex commercial law issues that arise in the context and in the aftermath of the pandemic for contracting parties to commercial contracts throughout the supply chain -—
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. It also includes global and regional impact assessment reports and webinars disseminating information about the impact of COVID-19 on the maritime supply chain, on response measures introduced to mitigate these impacts, and on good practices in future proofing the maritime supply chain -—
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SDG target 9.1 seeks to improve infrastructure that supports economic activity and human well-being while promoting sustainability. Specific to transport infrastructure, SDG indicator 9.1.2 measures progress towards sustainable and resilient transportation and measures trends in “passenger and freight transport”. Freight transportation is of direct relevance to UNCTAD’s mandate on transport and trade logistics. This chapter highlights trends in critical maritime transport infrastructure and services that underpin trade, supply chain linkages and economic integration.

Recovery in maritime transport as disruptions persist and new challenges lie ahead

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world economy, thereby impacting supply, demand and logistics, and constraining trade flows. For 2020, following a contraction of 3.8 per cent over 2019, UNCTAD estimates shipping volumes to have lost 422 million tons taking the total to 10.65 billion tons -—
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. The drop was less dramatic than initially feared or when compared to the 2009 downturn, as the maritime transport sector managed to better navigate through the crisis. Reflecting its resilience, global containerised trade contracted by a marginal 1.1 per cent with volumes totaling 149 million TEUs.

Some sectors performed better than others. Worst hit was tanker shipping and less impacted were containerized trade, gas shipments, and dry bulk commodities such as iron ore and grains (Figure 1). The end of 2020 saw a nascent recovery, though asymmetric across market segments, as volumes picked up speed in the container segment and dry bulk commodities, while tanker shipping awaited a full recovery in global demand. However, the fragile recovery stumbled into shortages – of shipping capacity, as well as of containers and equipment, warehouse and infrastructure capacity at ports – leading to an unprecedented global supply chain crisis and surging freight rates and costs. These constraints have put supply chains under strain, while adding to port congestion and increasing delays and dwell times, and leading to a general decline in service reliability. UNCTAD expects world maritime trade to recover by 4.3 per cent in 2021, with annual growth moderating to 2.4 per cent thereafter -—
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After a drop of 10.4 per cent in 2020, global port calls by all ship types bounced back by 9.7 per cent 2021, reflecting a rapid surge in demand. The impact across maritime sectors was uneven. Container vessel port calls showed more resilience than port calls on average, with a drop of only 3.2 per cent in 2020, while the recovery in 2021 was driven by calls by gas and dry bulk carriers, passenger and Ro/Ro ships (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Volume of international maritime trade by cargo type
(Billions of tons loaded)

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Figure 2. Vessel port calls, change from 2020 to 2021
(Percentage)

Source: UNCTADstat -—
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Note: Calculations based on aggregates derived from combined automatic identification system (AIS) and port mapping intelligence data from MarineTraffic (http://marinetraffic.com). Ships of at least 1000 GT are covered. Only arrivals are considered in the total number of port calls.

Around two thirds of global maritime trade takes place in developing countries (Figure 3). In 2020, developing countries accounted for 60 per cent of global maritime exports and 70 per cent of imports.

Figure 3. Participation of developing countries in global maritime trade
(Percentage share of global maritime trade volumes)

Source: UNCTADstat -—
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Note: These statistics were compiled under UNCTAD's country classification as of April 2021.

Much of the growth in 2020 took place in East Asia, especially China. There has also been a surge in volumes on the Transpacific Containerized Trade Route linking East Asia with North America.

Asia’s predominance was further strengthened in 2020. Capitalizing on the fragmentation of globalized production processes, Asia has become a maritime hub that concentrates over 50 per cent of global maritime freight. Other developing regions do not contribute equally, reflecting varying degrees of integration into global value chains and manufacturing networks.

In 2020, this region shipped 41 per cent and received 66 per cent of world maritime cargo. Corresponding figures for the Americas were 23 and 13 per cent respectively, while 15 per cent of global goods were loaded and another 15 per cent of global goods were discharged at European ports. The other regions accounted for smaller shares of worldwide maritime cargo flows.

Figure 4. International maritime trade by region, 2020
(Percentage share of global maritime trade volume)

Source: UNCTADstat -—
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The historical highs observed in shipping costs since late 2020 are largely driven by pandemic-induced shocks and unexpected upward swings in shipping demand. According to UNCTAD analysis, if sustained, the 2020 surge in container freight rates will drive both import and consumer prices up. UNCTAD’s simulation model suggests that global import price levels will increase on average by 11 per cent as a result of the freight rate increases (Figure 5). See UNCTAD -—
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, chapter 3 for more information on UNCTAD’s simulations. Hardest hit will be the SIDS, whose trade relies heavily on maritime transport and which are predicted to face a cumulative increase of 24 per cent. Furthermore, if container freight rates remain elevated in 2023, global consumer prices could be 1.5 per cent higher than we would otherwise expect. In SIDS, the cumulative increase in consumer prices is estimated to be 7.5 per cent and in LDCs 2.2 per cent in 2023 -—
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In the longer term, however, shipping and port prices are driven by structural factors, such as port infrastructure, economies of scale, trade imbalances, trade facilitation, and shipping connectivity – all of which have lasting impacts on maritime transport costs and trade competitiveness. UNCTAD’s analyses show that policy measures that improve port infrastructure and shipping connectivity, for example, could cut transport costs by over 4 per cent (see Figure 6) -—
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Figure 5. Simulated impact of current container freight rate surge on import and consumer price levels between 2020-2023
(Percentage change)

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Figure 6. Impact of structural determinants on long-term maritime transport costs for importing goods
(Percentage change)

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As disruptions and uncertainty heighten, port efficiency becomes ever more important

In 2020, terminal operators, authorities, and intermodal transport providers introduced measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, ships had to spend more time in ports that were operating more slowly than before the pandemic. The greatest delays were for dry break bulk carriers for which cargo operations tend to be less automated and more labour-intensive so they were slowed by measures to reduce social contact. In 2021, port waiting times varied significantly across countries and regions (Map 1). Countries that record fewer arrivals and are called by smaller ships, and in which few containers are handled per port call, exhibit faster turnaround time than others. These include Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Countries with relatively fast turnaround time include, for example, Japan, Hong Kong SAR, and Taiwan Province of China. These benefit from the latest port technologies and adequate infrastructure and can accommodate the largest container vessels.

Efficient ports initiate a positive feed-back loop: high efficiency makes their ports attractive as ports of call, further boosting the number of arrivals. Countries with average turnaround time report a wide range of average port waiting times, reflecting large differences in efficiency and other factors such as vessel age and cargo throughput. Shipping and port performance is generally lower in developing countries where transport costs are higher and connectivity levels lower, due to persistent structural factors.

Map 1. Container ship port calls and time in port, 2021
(Number of arrivals and median number of days in port)

Source: UNCTADstat -—
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Note: These figures are based on AIS data. “Median time in port” represents an estimate of the overall time per ship spent in port. This can be interpreted as a rough measure of efficiency, although it does not consider differences in waiting time, berth time, working and idle time.

Investing in transport efficiency, sustainability and resilience

The disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressing need for sustainability require scaling up investment in smart, green and resilient transport infrastructure and services. As infrastructure is set to play a key role in the global economic recovery, there is an opportunity to advance objectives such as efficiency and resilience-building. Investing in risk assessment and preparedness will be crucial in a post COVID-19 world. Such measures include control towers and tools to effectively predict and analyse transport system disruptions and business continuity plans for different stages of a crisis. In the face of disruptions, it is also important to collect and share information on potential congestion and bottlenecks and to accelerate greater uptake of technology, a proven mitigating tool. All in all, lessons learned from the pandemic should serve as guidance for informing preparedness and future-proofing of maritime transport.

Available estimates specific to the transport sector also reveal high investment needs over the coming decades. Around US$95 trillion of investments, or US$6.3 trillion per year, not considering climate change concerns, are estimated to be required over the period from 2016 to 2030 in infrastructure, including energy, transport, water and telecommunications networks. Transport accounts for 43 per cent, or US$41 trillion, of the required investments, with much of the needs concentrated in developing regions -—
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Alleviating the persistent transport infrastructure gap and ensuring proper service delivery require further mobilization of domestic resources, and taping into other financing sources and arrangements, including blended finance, FDI, green and climate finance, as well as private sector participation in the form of public-private partnerships, among others. However, in many countries, investing in transport infrastructure competes for public funds with other high-priority areas, while opportunities and capabilities for domestic resource mobilization and international borrowing are often constrained and limited.

For private sector participation in the transport sector, the risks increased during the pandemic. Private commitment in the transport sector fell by 78 per cent in 2020 in comparison with 2019. The drop totaled US$10.5 billion across 41 projects, the lowest levels in the past decade in terms of the number of projects and size of the investment. The five largest port projects alone had investments totaling US$805 million -—
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. However, the situation improved in the first half of 2021, when the transport sector outpaced the other sectors, attracting US$14.4 billion, spread over 40 projects. Port projects received US$1.9 billion in private investment commitments in the first half of 2021, indicating signs of recovery -—
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Green and sustainable finance with dedicated tools to support the transition to low-carbon shipping is expanding. Banks following the Poseidon principles climate agreement for the maritime sector, for example, issued over $1.2 billion in sustainable maritime ship financing in 2020 -—
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. Meanwhile, under the Climate Bonds Standard and Certification Scheme, a first shipping project was certified, involving a loan facility of US$246 million to a New Zealand-based transport operator -—
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. Another example is Hapag-Lloyd, a global container shipping company which concluded its first green finance deal totaling US$889 million to secure funds for six liquefied natural gas (LNG) powered, 23 500 TEU containerships ordered in 2020) -—
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Adapting transport infrastructure to climate change

UNCTAD has worked on assessment for the implications of climate change for maritime transportation since 2008, with an increasing focus on climate change adaptation and resilience building for seaports and other key coastal transport infrastructure -—
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. These are strategic nodes in the network of closely interconnected global supply chains. In keeping up with the global momentum of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the 2019 Climate Action Summit convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, UNCTAD is intensifying its efforts to promote sustainable and climate-resilient freight transport infrastructure and services.2

Transport infrastructure is affected directly and indirectly by climate change, with far-reaching consequences for international trade and the development prospects of the most vulnerable nations -—
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.3 Seaports fulfil an important function in the network of global supply chains and are critical for access to global markets. With the global sea level continuously rising -—
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, climate resilience and adaptation for critical coastal transport infrastructure, such as ports, is of strategic socio-economic importance -—
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. This is the case in all countries, but particularly in SIDS, which depend on their coastal transport infrastructure as lifelines for external trade, food and energy security, and tourism, and as a means for disaster risk reduction -—
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Climate-related extreme events and disasters can result in significant damage, disruption and delay, giving rise to extensive economic costs -—
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. In light of recent climate projections and the increasing urgency of action -—
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, they are considered among the top global economic risks -—
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, with implications for additional infrastructure investment needs and climate adaptation.

Figure 7 shows the share of disasters over the past 20 years that had a significant impact on infrastructure. The figure suggests that transport is the sector that is most vulnerable to disasters. On average, transport facilities have an 18 to 26 per cent probability to be adversely impacted by geophysical, hydrological and meteorological events. Some of these events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change, with severe consequences for infrastructure. Indeed, a recent study estimates that global damages due to the sea-level rise and related extreme events might amount to US$10.8 trillion per year, about 1.8 per cent of global GDP, in a scenario of 1.5°C warming by 2100. In a scenario of global warming of 2°C or more, the costs could be much higher -—
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. Another recent study estimates that the total value of assets exposed to episodic coastal flooding by 2100 could increase to between 12 and 20 per cent of the global GDP, if adaptation measures will not be taken -—
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Despite a brief dip in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (see chapter Make or break for green economy), the world is still heading for a temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of this century – far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C -—
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. Therefore, accelerated action both on mitigation and adaptation will is key -—
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In addition, there is an urgent need to step up climate adaptation finance, including in the form of grants -—
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. Estimated adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times higher than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening. Also, further ambition is needed to progress in national-level adaptation planning, finance, and implementation worldwide -—
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. And investing in climate-resilience makes good economic sense: according to the World Bank, the overall net benefits of investing in resilient infrastructure in developing countries could amount to US$4.2 trillion over the lifetime of new infrastructure – a US$4 return for each dollar invested in resilience -—
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Figure 7. Share of disasters impacting infrastructure, by sector, 2000-2019
(Percentage)

Source: UNCTAD calculations based on data from -—
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Notes: The share shown in this chart is calculated as the number of disasters that caused significant damage on infrastructure, divided by the total number of disasters. It is calculated for each infrastructure sector and type of disaster. The category “other” includes multi-hazard events. The source database provides an inventory of disasters and their effects for 155 economies during the period 2000-2019. -—
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Adaptation and resilience measures are not only essential to reducing the negative impacts of climate change on critical transport infrastructure; they are also key to achieving progress on several SDG targets. In view of the long service life of transport infrastructure and the potentially major consequences of inaction, effective adaptation and resilience requires an early re-thinking of established approaches and practices -—
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However, a recent UNCTAD port-industry survey on climate change impacts and adaptation for ports shows important gaps in data on resilience and preparedness among seaports worldwide -—
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. Relevant data are urgently needed for effective climate risk assessment and adaptation planning of coastal transport infrastructure, especially for ports in developing countries -—
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. As noted by UNCTAD -—
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, legal and regulatory approaches as well as policies and plans are crucial for facilitating effective risk and vulnerability assessments and providing a supportive framework for adaptation action. Guidance, standards -—
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, best practices, methodologies -—
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and other tools in support of adaptation -—
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are urgently required, especially for the most vulnerable countries.

Climate change adaptation is a particularly urgent imperative for SIDS -—
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. Many of them are particularly exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change while also highly dependent on coastal transport infrastructure for external trade, food, energy and tourism. SIDS therefore suffer from a “double exposure” to external economic and environmental shocks -—
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. Climate-related extreme events, which are expected to increase in frequency and severity, may cause major disruptions to the connectivity of SIDS to international markets with broad ramifications for sectors such as tourism -—
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UNCTAD has recently conducted vulnerability assessments for eight seaports and coastal airports in two SIDS in the Caribbean: Saint Lucia and Jamaica -—
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, as part of a technical assistance project on climate change adaptation for coastal transport infrastructure in SIDS -—
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. The results of the assessment, which focused on operational disruptions and marine inundation risk under different climate scenarios, suggest severe climate change impacts on coastal transport infrastructure and operations from as early as the 2030s unless further climate change adaptation is undertaken -—
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. Because of SIDS’ heavy reliance on maritime and air transport infrastructure, climate-change driven impacts on transport assets have significant impacts on livelihoods, economic, social, and environmental assets, and adversely affect the overall sustainable development prospects of SIDS -—
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Priority actions to strengthen adaptation and resilience building include inspection and maintenance, monitoring systems and effective data management, as well as risk assessments, contingency plans and warning systems. In addition, flexible and adaptive infrastructure, systems and operations, and engineered redundancy to improve resilience are needed -—
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, as are other technologies to avert, minimize and address loss and damage in coastal zones -—
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.

With regard to climate change adaptation and resilience-building for seaports, the latest Climate Action Pathway for Transport, revised in 2021, includes recommendations for ‘Resilient transport systems, infrastructure and vehicles’, with milestones towards 2050 (for 2025, 2030 and 2040) -—
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. By 2025, all new transport infrastructure, systems and, where necessary vehicles, should be climate-resilient to at least 2050; by 2030, that should be extended to all critical transport infrastructure and systems; and by 2040, all critical infrastructure and systems should be climate-resilient to at least 2100 -—
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. Translating these timely targets into action will require a major acceleration of efforts at all levels.

Without timely planning and implementation of appropriate adaptation measures, the projected impacts on critical transport infrastructure may have broad economic and trade-related repercussions, and could severely compromise the sustainable development prospects of the most vulnerable nations -—
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. However, important knowledge gaps remain concerning vulnerabilities and the specific nature and extent of the exposure that individual coastal transport facilities may be facing.

The potentially severe economic impacts of the global COVID-19 public health crisis might counteract the adaptation efforts of the transport sector in the short term, through a shift in budget allocations resulting in a decrease of infrastructure financing, for example. However, the pandemic underlines the critical importance of preparedness, risk assessment and resilience-building. Lessons learnt could provide renewed impetus to climate risk and vulnerability assessments of critical transport infrastructure and foster long-term planning essential to enhancing resilience. Changing circumstances arising from the impacts of the pandemic, e.g., the need for health and safety measures at ports of entry; changes to tourism markets; greater reliance on local and national resources and supplies, will need to be taken into account in any strategy for infrastructure adaptation and resilience building. Addressing the impacts of climate change remains a major challenge, in particular for the most vulnerable groups of countries, such as SIDS which depend on their critical coastal transport infrastructure and face a high and growing risk of coastal flooding -—
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While central to development, transport also has detrimental effects on the environment through air pollution, GHG emissions, soil contamination, waste, noise, threats to land and water ecosystems and biodiversity, and others. Each mode of transport entails a different combination of negative impacts on the environment -—
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. While maritime transport is considered to be the most CO2-efficient mode of freight transport, the large volumes handled by this sector and its projected expansion in the coming decades make climate change efforts of the sector a priority. According to different scenarios, CO2 emissions from maritime transport are expected to increase by 50 to 250 per cent until 2050 -—
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The sector is making progress towards achieving the ambitious levels set out in the initial IMO strategy on reduction of GHG emissions from ships, targeting among other measures on the promotion of ship energy efficiency, use of alternative fuels and the development of national action plans, to address GHG emissions from international shipping -—
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. However, much more remains to be done. For developing countries, it is important that their legitimate interests be taken into account in the quest to reduce emissions from international shipping. UNCTAD is collaborating with IMO by providing an expert assessment of the potential impact of the proposed short-term IMO measures on GHG emission reduction across three scenarios until 2030. UNCTAD has analyzed the impact of the proposed measure on countries’ external trade, transport costs -—
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, connectivity and economic growth, in particular in SIDS and LDCs -—
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To conclude, promoting sustainable transport involves balancing the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the sector. It involves ensuring that transport infrastructure, services and operations be safe, socially acceptable, universally accessible, reliable, affordable, fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly, low-carbon and climate-resilient -—
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.4 Given the potential for a broad range of climate-change induced impacts and the multi-dimensional nature of the sector, collaboration and participation of all relevant stakeholders, including public and private actors and academia, will be crucial to drive more systemic approaches to resilience-building -—
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Notes

  1. For example, -—
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    forecasts global investment needs for airports, ports, rails and energy transportation of US$585 billion per year from 2015 to 2030. -—
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    estimate that investment requirements in transport infrastructure will increase from US$557 billion in 2014 to US$900 billion in 2025 globally. Finally, -—
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    project cumulative investment needs in the sector over the period from 2016 to 2030 to amount to US$18.7 trillion.
  2. For additional information, see -—
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    and -—
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  3. For recent studies on these topics, see -—
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    ; and -—
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  4. For more information on UNCTAD's current work on sustainable and climate resilient freight transport, see UNCTAD -—
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    and UNCTAD -—
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References

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