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Integrated efforts for sustainable mobility and smart connectivity can boost recovery in pan-European region and North America  

Cycling in city

Recognizing the vital importance of mobility and connectivity for sustainable economic development and taking stock of key challenges, UNECE has consolidated its work in this cross-cutting area to help countries leverage its tools to steer recovery efforts towards the Sustainable Development Goals. 

For mobility and connectivity, the new “nexus” report examines how to better connect people, companies, governments, economies, while making mobility more environmentally friendly. The study highlights in particular that the digitalization of many of these processes is key to improving efficiency and effectiveness. 

Accelerating the shift to green, efficient, safe and healthy mobility for all  

As the United Nations’ platform for inland transport – covering road, rail, inland waterway and intermodal transport – countries can leverage UNECE support for sustainable mobility and smart connectivity through regulations, standards, collaboration and infrastructure development. Central to this role are the 59 Inland Transport Conventions administered by UNECE, which offer an internationally harmonized framework for the development of sustainable, safe, efficient and resilient transport systems. Available instruments range from UN vehicle regulations that for example, support the mass deployment of electric vehicles and facilitate the safe introduction of autonomous driving technologies, to legal frameworks and cooperation to scale up rail transport and the use of inland waterways to better connect the region. This is vital as, in the EU-28 for example, road transport accounts for 72% of greenhouse gas emissions from transport Overall, the transport sector produces about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the EU

The report highlights the key role of regional cooperation in addressing complex policy challenges. Among wide-ranging examples featured, it shows how an integrated approach to cycling promotion can unlock interlinked sustainability benefits. Physical inactivity is linked to an estimated 1 million deaths each year within the WHO European region, according to WHO. Traffic congestion contributes to deadly pollution and climate change and imposes huge costs on society. Annual economic damage from passenger transport and cargo delays due to traffic congestion in Europe is estimated at around €100 billion, or more than 1% of GDP of the EU. 

To help address these challenges, the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP), serviced by UNECE and WHO/Europe, has negotiated a Pan-European Master Plan for cycling promotion, which is expected to be adopted by member States in May 2021. The Master Plan includes a wide range of suggested actions to foster a cycling culture, with the aim of doubling cycling uptake in the region, developing and implementing national cycling policies, and integrating cycling infrastructure into planning. THE PEP also seeks to build on existing cycle infrastructure and coordination centres such as the Eurovelo cycling network as a ‘bicycle backbone’ comprising 17 routes with a total length of 90,000 kilometres.  

Accelerating the shift to active forms of mobility is vital to decarbonize the region’s transport sector. Among other key strategies, the report points to the need to increase public transport use, which requires about 3 times less energy than cars, and is already electrified for metro, tram and trolleybuses networks in many cities of the region, enabling the use of increasing shares of renewable energy.  

To unlock the full potential of the region’s sustainable mobility shift, the report emphasizes the need to prioritize affordability and accessibility considerations for all, including for persons with disabilities.  

The report recommends capitalizing on available instruments to improve safety across all transport modes. For road transport, where crashes account for 105,000 deaths annually in the UNECE region, the UN road safety conventions administered by UNECE provide a basis for countries to legislate and take concrete measures to address the major causes of crashes. In EU and EFTA countries, the implementation of these practical tools has contributed to a sharp reduction in road fatalities, with some 20,000 fewer deaths in 2015 compared to 2005; in the Russian Federation, this has contributed to a reduction of some 7,000 fatalities in 2014 compared to 2005. However, greater efforts are needed across the region, especially in low- and middle-income countries, where 90% of victims are. 

Single Windows and digital tools form the backbone of smart connectivity 

Smart connectivity streamlines international trade transactions, 90% of which still involve paper documents. By using a combination of digitized technologies, harmonized standards like those developed by UN/CEFACT, and supportive regulatory frameworks, the report sets out a clear direction for improving economic growth aligned with the SDGs.  

One example is the use of digital “Single Windows” to facilitate international trade and the transport of goods – processes which require a multitude of commercial and government documents and data submissions. Helping to avoid burdensome and inefficient administration for all public and private sector stakeholders, and recognizing the complexities of each national regulation, UN/CEFACT’s international guidance for establishing a Single Window (SW) offers a single, harmonized, and consistent entry point for all regulatory import, export and transit data. This is echoed as an integral part of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement.  

The UNECE region is a leader in terms of the development of SWs, with an implementation rate of 71%, according to the UN Global Survey on Digital and Sustainable Trade Facilitation. One example is Canada, where importing a refrigerator from the USA involves nine separate government departments and previously required the submission of numerous paper documents. Canada’s digital SW system, set up between 2013 and 2017, now handles over 1 million monthly declarations.  

Despite advances across the region, challenges still exist in some countries, such as the necessary coordination between government agencies. To address these, the report therefore recommends all member States to establish SW based on UNECE guidance. Complementing these tools, countries should legally validate the use of e-documents and e-certificates as defined by UN/CEFACT standards, and can harness UNECE’s ‘People-first’ Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach to help finance SW developments. 

Combined measures for the movement of freight can multiply benefits 

An integrated approach to connectivity can also increase cross-border trade and transport efficiencies. This can be especially valuable for international border crossings for goods transit, which can be the ‘pinch-points’ in supply chains, hindering economic development and, in the case of road transport, contributing to CO2 emissions from trucks waiting to complete formalities. The CMR road consignment note – already used for 1 billion transport contracts annually and often for regulatory compliance by security and customs agencies – offers a practical tool to facilitate transit, which, through its digitalization is set to enhance its contribution to seamless road freight.  So far, the eCMR protocol has been ratified by 27 countries, with more expected to follow. UN/CEFACT has developed an international standard eCMR electronic message to facilitate and harmonize these exchanges. 

Another key instrument is the eTIR International System under the TIR Convention, which ensures paperless, seamless and contactless border crossings operations. Already 48 Contracting Parties have expressed interest in connecting their national customs systems to eTIR. The TIR system already reduces cross-border transport time by up to 80%, and costs by up to 38% for its 77 Contracting Parties around the world. This is a key opportunity, especially for Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs), where on average transport costs are 50% higher than in other developing countries that have access to the open sea. The digitalization of the Convention’s procedures through the “eTIR” system can unlock even greater efficiency gains. 

The value of such digital tools has become even clearer in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, both as a means to keep essential supplies and goods flowing smoothly, and to reduce virus transmission risks by limiting person-to-person contact. 

For both mobility and connectivity measures, the report further underscores the core importance of security across all modes of transport and across borders, and how UNECE support – such as UN vehicle regulations on cybersecurity, border-crossing conventions and facilitating cooperation on transport infrastructure – can contribute to countries’ efforts. 

Overall, the report shows how strengthening efforts for mobility and connectivity can unlock far-reaching benefits throughout the region. Based on this blueprint to improve efficiencies and sustainability to catalyse the sustainable recovery needed for the 2030 Agenda, UNECE is committed to helping countries harness its numerous tools and platforms for cooperation. 

Note to editors 

About UNECE’s “nexus” approach 

UNECE is supporting countries to address some of the key sustainable development challenges facing the region, which can help steer efforts for a green and inclusive socio-economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.   

Through an integrated, multisectoral approach leveraging UNECE norms, standards and conventions, and by building capacities and providing policy assistance, UNECE is helping to accelerate countries’ implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  

This cross-cutting work is helping to drive progress towards 9 core SDGs where UNECE has particular strengths, namely SDGs 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13 and 15. Partnerships (SDG 17) and gender equality (SDG 5) underpin all UNECE activities.   

At the crossroads of all UNECE programmes and expertise, UNECE has identified 4 high-impact “nexus” areas where multiple SDGs converge.  

  • Sustainable use of natural resources 
  • Sustainable and smart cities 
  • Sustainable mobility and smart connectivity 
  • Measuring and monitoring progress towards the SDGs. 

This report is one of four flagship publications prepared by UNECE to support countries’ SDG progress in these key areas. 


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