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Rio+20 in the Rear View: What’s the Road Ahead for Sustainable Transportation?

WRI's experts will continue to provide commentary and analysis of the results of the Rio+20 conference through our series, "Rio+20 in the Rear View." Check Insights this week and next for more post-Rio+20 coverage.

As we look to make sense of the Rio+20 conference that concluded last week, we can confidently say that transportation drove its way to the top of the sustainable development agenda. It’s a far departure from the last global development conference 10 years ago in Johannesburg, when transportation was conspicuously absent from the agenda and the resulting Millennium Development Goals. After the Rio+20 conference last week, transportation is now poised to become a significant part of the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals, which are beginning to take shape as one of the conference’s major outcomes.

With transportation intricately tied to so many of the global mega-trends today—climate change, traffic fatalities, city growth and congestion, poverty, and air pollution—it was exciting to see sustainable transport finally included in development discussions. Here are a few of Rio+20’s major transportation outcomes:

Making Progress on Sustainable Transportation

1) Rio+20’s outcome document, “The Future We Want,” contains two paragraphs on sustainable transport. A specific recognition of road safety as an integral part of sustainable transport provides a future link to the U.N. Decade of Action for Road Safety, which aims to stabilize and then reduce global road traffic fatalities by 2020. Transport is also included in the document’s sustainable cities chapter, recognizing the nexus between urban development and transport and the role of walking and cycling as healthy, environmentally friendly methods of commuting. However, the text fails to include specific commitments to implement sustainable transportation initiatives, so these good words still need to be translated into action.

2) Never before were there so many transportation-related events at such a high-level, international conference. In fact, 30 transportation events took place during Rio+20. A few highlights:

  • Before Rio+20, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led a U.N. Bike Ride in New York City to showcase bicycling as a means of sustainable, low-carbon urban transport.

  • Once all eyes turned to Rio de Janeiro, American journalists got a first-hand look at the city’s new bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor, Transoeste, on a tour led by EMBARQ Brazil, a member of WRI’s global sustainable transport network.

  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg met Rio officials at the Operations Center, praising the city’s evolution: "I was in Rio 20 years ago, and I can see the differences, primarily in the actions of people,” he said. “I think the locals are following the right path toward sustainability.”

3) U.N. organizations, NGOs, transport associations, and development banks articulated solid commitments, with much support from the transport, health, and climate change communities:

  • In total, 15 commitments were submitted for Sustainable Transport on the official UNCSD website. A couple more were added to the list compiled by the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), a U.N. Type-2 partnership consisting of 63 major, influential institutions in the field of sustainable transport (EMBARQ is a member.) Commitments ranged from promoting environmentally sensitive forms of transportation to increasing cycling to doubling the market share of public transportation worldwide by 2025.

  • EMBARQ submitted our own Voluntary Commitment, “Scaling Up Sustainable Transport Solutions Worldwide,” with our goal to ensure that 200 cities in mostly emerging economies will substantially adopt sustainable mobility into urban development by 2016. We also supported a second Voluntary Commitment under the Zenani Mandela Campaign, “Protecting Children from traffic injuries and improving their urban environment,” in unison with 11 other organizations. The commitment was mirrored by EMBARQ’s Rio+20 event, “Sustainable Transport Saves Lives,” which fostered conversation about the link between transport, health, and road safety. This was the only official road safety event at Rio+20.

  • The C40 Climate Leadership Group (C40), including mayors of 58 mega-cities around the world, announced that their actions could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than one billion tons by 2030. Enacting policies to achieve further emissions cuts will necessitate focusing on sustainable transit, as transportation accounts for up to 40 percent of most cities’ total greenhouse gas emissions.

4) Finally, never before was so much money allocated to sustainable transport. The world’s largest multi-lateral development banks committed $175 billion over 10 years to support sustainable transport in developing countries. While this investment is undeniably a game-changer, we’ll need to make sure the money is spent on the right kinds of projects, like vibrant public spaces—which provide safer infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists—or building high-tech, low-cost transit systems.

Next Steps

While the Rio+20 negotiations have been criticized as lackluster at best and unproductive at worst, the focus on sustainable transportation has emerged as a definitive bright spot in the conference.

Within the next half year, a high-level expert panel under the leadership of Ban Ki Moon will be established. This is an opportunity to follow up on the voluntary commitments, as well as include sustainable transport in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Additionally, in the following months there is a need to work on principles, guidance, and indicators to ensure that the multi-lateral development banks’ monetary commitment is measurable, transparent, and reliable. An independent working group consisting of business, governmental representatives, NGOs, and researchers could be a way forward to ensure that the funding will lead to a paradigm shift.

Many commitments were made when it comes to boosting walking, biking, and access to public transportation. Now it’s time to take those commitments and get into the difficult task of making them happen.

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