Role of transport in achieving SDGs

A set of 17 goals and 169 targets to usher the world on to a path of sustainable development in the next fifteen years came into force on 1st January 2016. UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development forms the basis for these goals. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – centered around the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental – stimulate action in areas that are critical for the future of humanity and the planet. From reducing poverty and hunger to fighting climate change; creating gender equality, forming stronger partnerships, developing sustainable cities and communities, reducing inequalities, achieving peace and stronger institutions.

All SDGs have a varying number of targets that are further linked to indicators. The indicators guide the countries in developing implementation strategies. Besides, they also serve as a tool to map progress towards achieving a target. Often, multiple indicators are used for each target.

Transport services and adequate infrastructure are vital for achieving most, if not all, SDGs. Although transport is not a standalone goal in the list of SDGs, it echoes in eight of them – directly or indirectly. Transport-relating SDGs can be classified into the following:

  • Climate change
  • Energy
  • Health and safety
  • Infrastructure


Climate change

 Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity today. It is a challenge that is not confined to any single geographical border. Humanity has never before dealt with a crisis anything like it. Our obscurity and unpreparedness vis-à-vis its risks add to the anxiety around climate change. Abnormal levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and other harmful gases have entered our atmosphere, which is upsetting the natural cycles of earth’s climate. The release of these gases has accelerated since industrialization and has not been any lower since then, despite numerous international efforts and accords. (The only success story, so far, has been the reduction of Chlorofluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer, as a result of the Kyoto Protocol which took place in 1997).

The temperature rise in one place is not a problem. It might well be beneficial to certain geographical locations which, for instance, get to enjoy longer summers. The crises begin when the average global temperature begins to rise which leads to, among other predicaments, more frequent natural disasters. As a result of global warming, the Arctic and the Antarctic ice sheets are melting. This leads to a rise in sea-levels, thus causing flooding. Many of the low-lying island nations of the world already are at risk of sinking.

Scientists estimate that even a 2-degree Celsius rise in average temperature would bring havoc for all forms of life on earth, including humans. All climate change efforts are aimed at stopping the average global temperature from rising beyond 2-degrees Celsius. The world is not ready to endure the effects of global warming of 2-degree Celsius. Recently, there have been discussions in the scientific community about halting the climate change at 1.5-degree Celsius.

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SDG 13 Climate Action; Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Goal 13.1 is to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries. The associated indicators are (i) number of deaths, missing persons and persons affected by disaster per 100,000 people (13.1.1), (ii) number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies (13.1.2), and (iii) proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies (13.1.3).

There is no doubt that climate change is happening. Parts of the world are already witnessing it in the form of extended summers, flooding, droughts, biodiversity loss, and species extinction. Regions most severely hit by climate change also host to the bulk of the world species: threatened with extinction. Climate change is happening at a rate faster than these species can adapt.

Climate change is costing billions of dollars annually in the form of loss of life and property, further strained by infrastructure rebuild costs. As much as it is important to stop climate change, it is essential to also lower the risks of the effects of climate change. Humans have been adapting to the changes in their environment since they first begin to exist. But the rate of change required by climate change is faster than what humans can manage. Therefore, adaption is as important as mitigation for the simple fact that if all the levers of the GHG emitting chimneys are pulled right before this sentence ends, we still need to adapt to the changes that have already been set into motion.

Goal 13.2 aims to integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning. The associated indicator (13.2.1) is the number of countries that have communicated the establishment or operationalization of an integrated policy/strategy/plan which increases their ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development in a manner that does not threaten food production (including a national adaptation plan, nationally determined contribution, national communication, biennial update report or other).

This goal is around the mitigation side of climate change. This involves reducing, if not halting, the amount of GHGs entering into the atmosphere, reversing deforestation and planting more trees to add to the carbon sink. For transport, lowering of GHG emissions can be achieved by using cleaner vehicles, switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles e.g. hybrid or electric, reducing single occupancy of vehicles, using public transport, and walking and cycling when possible. This all requires having in place improved infrastructure, attractive governmental incentives, and better planning from the consumers’ side.


Flights make up a big chunk of emissions. Travelers should reduce the carbon footprint associated with their air-traveling. Technology today enables us to hold business meetings remotely, literally slashing away the need to travel. Doing a video-calling instead of actually traveling can help save carbon, cost and most importantly: time. When traveling is vital, choosing greener flights and off-setting the footprint can help neutralize the impact. A number of flight-operators offer carbon offsetting at minimal costs.

Since the rise of the internet and boom in internet shopping, more and more goods now travel from one part of the world to another. This has led to an increase in GHG emissions. By making sensible decisions around what we consume, we can reduce our carbon footprint. A number of online tools allow measuring carbon footprint: WWF Footprint, Carbon Footprint, Natural Conservancy.

“We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last that will be able to do anything about it”.



Energy is our ability to do work. Whether it be the strength needed by a body to perform day-to-day activities or fuel burnt to get a train from London to Glasgow, energy, in one form or another, is elemental. Our reliance on energy, today, is ever more than in any time in recorded history. On the flip side, energy usage today is more efficient too. Trains today are not only faster but also are more efficient than what they were 200 years ago. Bulbs today consume fewer volts for the same amount of luminosity produced than the voltage they used drain 100 years ago. This all is a result of the technological advancements.

As much as efficiency has increased, so has the demand. We are now more than 8 billion energy-hungry individuals, projected to hit 10 billion by mid-century. To meet the demand, we need to produce more energy whilst also continuing to improve efficiencies. That’s where the paradox kicks in. The world has enough reserves of coal, oil and natural gas to meet demands for many decades at least, factoring technology staying constant. However, the same reserves are problematic to the future survival of humanity and the planet as we know it.

Whether to burn the reserves of fossils that will support the economic growth but cause environmental problems, or not to exploit them in goodwill to save the future of the planet at the cost of available exploitable reserves; it is not an easy question to answer. Especially when the choice entails sunken costs of billions of dollars invested in the fossil-industry’s infrastructure, thousands of jobs at risk and overwhelming lobbying power of the oil and gas corporations.

Our helpless dependence on energy and the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels to get that energy then rationalises a shift towards renewable sources of energy, e.g. solar, wind, tidal. For better or worse, what matters to the consumers is a continuous and affordable supply of energy, irrespective of the type of sources the energy is procured from.


Renewable sources are clean and abundant, although disproportionately spread. Even though renewable fuels are on the rise, they are still not there yet to replace for the fossils fully. This requires governments pledging a voluntary sign-off of their fossil resources. The policy framework should see renewable energy as a substitute to fossils, not only a complement to them.

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SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy; Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy

Goal 7.3 is to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, by 2030. The indicator (7.3.1) for gauging this target is energy intensity in terms of primary energy and GDP.

Provision of continuous, clean and affordable energy is a basic fundamental right. By improving energy efficiency and expanding the share of energy coming from renewable sources, we can ensure that the GHGs remain in check while the world can continue to meet its ever-growing energy demands.

Energy is exhausted in all the phases of a supply chain. While accounting for energy use, the complete life-cycle approach should be adopted. For transport, energy is consumed during the extraction, manufacturing, shipping and all other phases of the supply chain in between; not just in the running phase. Switching to electric vehicles is paramount. What is equally important is that the electricity to run these cars also comes from cleaner sources. Uptake of renewable energy can do that magic!

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SDG 12 Responsible consumption and production; Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Goal 12.C relates to Rationalising inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions, in accordance with national circumstances, including by restructuring taxation and phasing out those harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries and minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities. The indicator (12.C.1) for this is the amount of fossil-fuel subsidies per unit of GDP (production and consumption) and as a proportion of total national expenditure on fossil fuels.

Supply determines demand; demand determines supply. Governments need to do away with the subsidies from fossil fuels and reallocate them towards cleaner sources of energy. This will enable a boost to the uptake of cleaner sources of energy. Premiums can help overcome the barriers in the way of their adoption. Likewise, subsidising cleaner modes of transport present the consumers the incentives to make greener choices instead.

Transportation on the side of private consumers is already witnessing a shift from ownership of a vehicle to its ‘usership’. With ride-sharing and car rentals becoming more convenient, fewer people now own their own vehicles. This is an important disruption that holds prospects of achieving higher fuel efficiencies and more sustainable use of resources.


Health and Safety

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SDG 3 Good Health and Well-Being; Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Goal 3.6 is to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents, by 2020. The indicator (3.6.1) is the death rate due to road traffic injuries. The quality of infrastructure has a direct relation to this goal.

Health is the real wealth. Billions of dollars are spent annually on the health sector. If there is one sector on which any amount of spending was to be justified, it better be the health sector. Of the billions who, unfortunately, die untimely of health-related complexities, a great number of them die in accidents.

World Health Organisation (WHO) declared road accidents to be the biggest killer of young people. As per the latest figures, 1.35 million people were killed in car accidents around the world in 2016, the rate is highest in Africa. Although the death rate due to road traffic accidents per population size has reduced over the years – thanks to better car designs and safety features – it still kills millions globally in road accidents. Responsible driving and fool-proof infrastructure can help achieve this goal. National driving associations continue to make health and safety as an intrinsic part of their driving manuals and training. The costs of not doing that are too high, on consumers as well as on their governments. Better anticipation and respect for the traffic regulations results in safe driving.


Goal 3.9 is about air-pollution. It aims to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination by 2030. The three underlying indicators associated with this goal are (i) Mortality rate attributed to household and ambient air pollution (3.9.1), (ii) Mortality rate attributed to unsafe water, unsafe sanitation and lack of hygiene (exposure to unsafe Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All (WASH) services) (3.9.2) and iii) Mortality rate attributed to unintentional poisoning (3.9.3).

“Poor air quality kills people. Worldwide, bad outdoor air caused an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016, about 90 percent of them in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. Indoor smoke is an ongoing health threat to the 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes by burning biomass, kerosene, and coal. Air pollution has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, premature deaths, and respiratory diseases such as asthma. In the U.S. nearly 134 million people—over 40 percent of the population—are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution, according to American Lung Association estimates.”

Effects of air pollutants on health are worse than they were previously understood to be. Diesel cars – once thought to be a cleaner option – emit a toxic level of nitrous oxide and particulate matters which are injurious to health. Asthma incidents – which have a direct correlation with air pollution – are on the rise, especially around urban areas where there are more cars, longer traffic congestion and higher levels of air pollution. Particulate Matters (PM) which are fine particles in the air are hazardous to health. They are found in dust and are also produced when fuel is burnt. Some PMs are small enough to get into the lungs and even enter into the bloodstream.

To resolve that, policies from the governments to accelerate a transition to zero-emissions transportation are needed. This includes popularising electric modes of transport. Governments need to invest in R&D and swell their support for programmes working on greening the transport landscape. Introduction of clean air zones (in the U.K.) is in response to the concerns around high levels of air pollution in cities. City of London already has low emissions zones to curb pollution. From beginning of April, 2019, the city with further tighten its grip on air-pollution by introducing Ultra-Low Emission Zone. These restrictions nudge the commuters to switch to driving less and switching to greener vehicles which pollute as little as possible. Reducing traffic volumes will aid to lessen air pollution from road transport. Many cities, especially in Europe, have made their town centers car-free zones, with more cities planning the same.


So much for cars. What about all the coaches, trucks and lorries all trailing on our motorways? Heavy-duty vehicles – though fewer in number – cause the majority of global warming emissions and air pollution. Therefore, it is important to lower the emissions from heavy-duty vehicles for improving air quality levels. Continuing to lower emissions from fossil fuel–powered trucks is an important first step. Just like electric cars, with electric trucks and buses we have an opportunity to reduce emissions.

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SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities; Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Goal 11.6 is to reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management. Three indicators for this are i) proportion of urban solid waste regularly collected and with adequate final discharge out of total urban solid waste generated, by cities (11.6.1) and ii) annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5 and PM10) in cities (population weighted) (11.6.2)

Municipalities today generate more waste than ever before. Globally, per capita solid waste generation today is around 1.2 kg/day which is projected to rise to 1.42 kg/day by 2025. Improper dumping of waste requires large amounts of land and, on top, causes numerous health problems. On the other hand, incineration releases toxic substances and causes air pollution. The 4Rs of waste reduction: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle offer a systemic approach to deal with the tonnes of waste generated today.

It is important to reduce our wastage and also channel the waste into the production cycle instead of dumping and land-filling it, for example by generating electricity, producing fuels etc. A whole new model of the economy, the so-called circular economy, is all about ‘keeping the resources into use as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life’.



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SDG 2 Zero Hunger; End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 2.3 is to, by 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment. Indicators for quantifying progress of this goal are (i) volume of production per labour unit by class of farming/pastoral/forestry enterprise size (2.3.1) and (ii) average income of small-scale food producers, by sex and indigenous status (2.3.2).

Agriculture is the backbone of our subsistence. To feed the growing number of mouths in the world, higher productivity levels in agriculture are needed. To achieve that, we needed better-educated farmers, open markets, women-empowerment, safe fertilisers, and improved transport facilities and machinery. By enabling the farmers to produce efficiently and being able to sell their produce to the markets cheaply, we can attain the food security world is in dire need of. Better transport linkages benefit all sectors. They allow goods, services, and labour to travel from one nook to another. Farmers use the transport infrastructure to sell their products, educators use them to reach their schools, the sick use them to reach their healers, workers use them to get to jobs.  Better connectivity brings broader prosperity. As much as it is important to expand the infrastructure, it is pertinent to ensure that it is durable, affordable and resource-efficient.

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SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation; Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 6.1 aims to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. The indicator for that is the proportion of the population using safely managed drinking water services (6.1.1).

Many parts of the world still lack access to safe drinking water. Just like distribution of agricultural yield is hooked on to the transport infrastructure, the provision of affordable drinking water services relies on water supply chain infrastructure, including transportation facilities.

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SDG 9 Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Goal 9.1 aims to develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and trans-border infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all. Indicators to measure the progress against this target are (i) proportion of the rural population who live within 2 km of an all-season road (9.1.1) and (ii) passenger and freight volumes, by mode of transport (9.1.2).

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SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities; Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Goal 11.2 is to, by 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons. The Indicator (11.2.1) to measure the progress against this goal is the proportion of the population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities.

This goal relates to a number of other transport-related goals discussed above: road safety and public transport infrastructure – better transportation in general. Better access between areas – both urban and rural – is essential for sustainable development.

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SDG 12 Responsible consumption and production; Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Goal 12.3 is to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030. The indicator (12.3.1) for this goal is the global food loss index.

As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is lost or wasted before it can reach a mouth. This food is enough to feed 2 billion people. Fruits, vegetables, roots, and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food. In the developed world, the majority of the food is wasted in the later stages in the supply chain. The behaviour of consumers can play the utmost role in saving food from being wasted. In developing countries, most of the food waste and losses occur at the early stages of the food supply chain. This can be attributed to technical constraints in production, adequate storage and cooling facilities, and infrastructure shortage for transporting. FAO suggests:

 “Strengthening the supply chain through the direct support of farmers and investments in infrastructure, transportation, as well as in an expansion of the food and packaging industry could help to reduce the amount of food loss and waste.”



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