Road transport and the environment (24 May 1996)


No sector of our economy will have a greater impact on the movement for sustainable development than road transport.


Statement by Maurice F. Strong at Plenary Session of XXV IRU Congress, held at Budapest on 24 May 1996.

Some of you will recall the First World Conference of Governments on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972 which put the environment issue on the international agenda. In 1987, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by Norway's Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, made it clear that, despite progress on many fronts, the environment of our planet continued to deteriorate, producing growing threats to our common future. In light of this, the UN General Assembly decided in 1989 to hold a second world conference on the 20th anniversary of Stockholm to set the agenda for the transition to a more secure and sustainable human future as we move into the 21st century.

This United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. It brought together an unprecedented number of world leaders as well as representatives of the media and virtually every sector of civil society. Despite some shortcomings, it produced agreement on a remarkable range of issues - a Declaration of Principles, a comprehensive program, called Agenda 21, to give effect to these principles, and two Conventions of seminal importance, one on Climate Change and one on Biodiversity, both of which have since come into effect. The fact that they were agreed by virtually all the nations of the world, most of them represented by their principal leaders, give them a high degree of political authority. But this does not ensure their implementation which, in many respects, has thus far fallen short of what is required to effect the "change of course" called for at Rio.

Changing course

This call was made most persuasively by the Business Council for Sustainable Development which brought together, under the leadership of enlightened Swiss Industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny, the Chief Executive Officers of some of the world's leading companies. In their report to the Earth Summit, "Changing Course", they made it clear that sustainable development is as essential for the future of business as it is for preservation of the environment and that it is entirely feasible to achieve it through what they call "eco-efficiency" - efficiency in the use of energy and raw materials and in the prevention, reduction and disposal of wastes. In a recent follow-up book, "Financing Change" Schmidheiny and Argentinian Industrialist, Federico Zorraquin describe how sustainable development can be the key to competitiveness and how financial markets can contribute to sustainable development.

Since Rio, there has been a disappointing recession in the political will of many governments to carry out the commitments they made at Rio. Particularly ominous are the signs that little progress is being made to build on and implement the Conventions on Biodiversity and Climate Change. The destruction of the precious biological resources of our planet continues apace. And it is now painfully obvious that most industrialized countries will not meet even the modest targets agreed for reducing the emissions of greenhouses gases which contribute to Climate Change, while the emissions of developing countries are rapidly escalating. We continue on a pathway that is simply not sustainable. The rapid growth in road transport makes it imperative that governments and fleet operators cooperate in achieving the efficiencies in fuel use that are achievable with current technologies, while providing the resources and incentives required to develop new technologies.

Business and sustainable development

Much more encouraging is the literal explosion of activities that have taken place at the level of people. Indeed, leadership of the movement for sustainable development has clearly shifted to business, the professions, non-governmental organizations and other representatives of civil society, as well as to local communities. You are not alone. Your own Charter for Sustainable Development recognizes the critical role that non-governmental organizations, as well as business and industry, can play, as highlighted in Chapters 27 and 30 of Agenda 21, in moving the sustainable development agenda forward. Some 15 million engineers through their international professional societies have committed themselves to a World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development. Architects and educators have taken similar initiatives. The World Tourist and Travel Council, representing what is now the world's largest single industry, recently adopted its Agenda 21. And the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, with its national and regional counterparts, is bringing together a growing number of business leaders committed to sustainable development. So you are by no means alone in making sustainable development your theme and your goal. Let me assure you that your initiative will set an influential example to others as well as earn the confidence and support of the customers and communities you serve in every part of the world. For no sector of our economy will have a greater impact on the movement for sustainable development than road transport.

The link between road transport, the economy and the environment is evident everywhere. But the attitudes of public and policy makers towards it is clouded by a good deal of mis-information and mis-understanding. I commend your Union for the work you are doing to bridge this gap. The report you commissioned on the "Transport of Goods by Road and its Environment in the Europe of Tomorrow" which came out just before the Earth Summit made an especially valuable contribution to illuminating these relationships. But much less has been done to provide a sound information base for policy makers in the CIS countries and the countries of the developing world which are leading the new round of growth in the global economy. These countries face monumental challenges in reconciling their rapidly growing transport needs with the pollution, social tensions andlf traffic congestion that are already strangling the commerce and degrading the quality of life in the exploding cities of the developing world.

Immense challenges

In its recent report on sustainable transport, the World Bank documents the immense challenges this poses to these countries. While their cities are crowded, much of their population - 33 per cent in China and 75 per cent in Ethiopia - still do not have access to all-weather transport. Meeting the needs for roads and related infrastructure are severely constrained by persistent shortages of public funds, inadequate and inappropriate policies and regulations and institutional structures that are simply not up to the job. Since the 1940s, the World Bank has provided nearly 50 billion dollars in loans and credits to the transport sector in developing countries, which now accounts for about 15 per cent of all Bank financing. Yet over the two-decade-period, 1964-1984, the Bank report estimates that some 45 billion I dollars worth of road infrastructure assets were lost in 85 developing countries owing to inadequate maintenance. This imposes a heavy cost on transporters and their customers as well as the environment.
These problems and the economic, social and political pressures they generate are bound to escalate as developing countries are still at the early stages of their development and the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have only recently begun to rebuild their shattered economies.

It surely must be clear that neither the more mature industrialized countries nor the newly developing countries can build secure and sustainable societies unless their economic growth can be brought into a viable balance with environmental and social imperatives. And if developing countries do not move on to a pathway to sustainable development, there is no prospect that we can make the transition to global sustainability. Indeed, the battle to build a sustainable industrial civilization will be won or lost in the developing world, and particularly the rapidly growing countries and exploding cities of Asia. These issues will be addressed at the Habitat II Conference on Human Settlements, the last in the recent series of global UN conferences, which will begin in Istanbul, Turkey, just two weeks from now.

Road transport

Road transport is at the very centre of this challenge. In no sector is the relationship between government and private enterprise of such critical importance. I commend your Union for taking the initiative to forge closer and most cooperative links between industry and government. And I am encouraged too, by your appreciation of the need to do a much better job of building public awareness of the issues and options you face and much greater transparency, confidence and trust through dialogue with people and public interest groups concerned with and affected by your actions. A much greater degree of public consultation and participation in the policy and decision making processes that are key to the future of your industry may sometimes be time consuming, even frustrating. But the decisions that emerge from these processes will provide a much more sound and dependable basis for the investments you make.

I am encouraged by the evidence I see in the theme of this Congress, the impressive agenda you have set for it and the quality of the participants that you are embarking on the right course. In congratulating you for this, let me also remind you that you carry an awesome responsibility. Without your commitment and leadership, the change of course called for at Rio cannot occur. You have evidenced that commitment here. You must be prepared to stay the course you have set. Next year is the 5th anniversary of Rio +5. As Chairman of the Earth Council, let me assure you of our continuing interest and support.

For we know that in forging an alliance with you to make road transport more sustainable, we will be enhancing the prospects for a sustainable mode of life for the entire human family in the new millennium. In a very real sense, our common future is in your hands.