Articulated around six Steps, one set of cross-cutting Enabling Factors, and twenty-seven detailed substeps, the UNCTAD Sustainable Freight Transport Framework provides a modular step-by-step process that details how to plan, design, develop and implement tailored sustainable freight transport strategies.

  At a Glance

Applicable to different stakeholders, within and across modes of transport and in various geographical areas, the methodology is flexible and can be modulated to allow for some steps to be carried out in parallel. Substeps and related activities can also be adapted to reflect stakeholders’ varying needs, resources and priorities. 

In addition, the SFT Framework allows for a circular process in which a monitoring and evaluation exercise is undertaken at the end of the cycle after having implemented the sustainable freight transport strategy. The figures below provide a graphical illustration.

UNCTAD Reference Framework for Sustainable Freight Transport

UNCTAD Framework for Sustainable Freight Transport

The aim is to help determine how the sector is performing in terms of the economic, social, and environmental sustainability objectives. Once this performance measurement is established, adequate adjustment measures to improve the strategy can be envisaged.

Incorporating sustainable freight transport considerations into existing public and private sector planning processes may require additional work and resources. Depending on the context, however, some steps are likely to be more critical than others, and may require more attention and resources.  Overall efforts involved during each step can vary depending on local priorities and resources.

An effective sustainable freight transport strategy does not stop at the question “what do we want to do?” i.e. outlining the overall vision.  The strategy needs to support the vision with an action plan to deliver the desired outcomes through the appropriate instruments, including policy-related instruments.  The main question is therefore, how do we do it and how do we get the resources (institutional and financial) to deliver the strategy? Other related considerations include the following:

  1. Which issues in the freight transport sector should be considered?
  2. Who are the stakeholders?
  3. What determines the performance of the freight transport sector?
  4. What are the broad and bold aspirations associated with the freight transport sector?
  5. What is the ultimate objective that the sustainable freight transport strategy aims to achieve?
  6. What are the best options for developing and implementing a sustainable freight transport strategy?
  7. How to balance the varied perspectives and move the planning process forward?
  8. How can the strategy be made into a reality?
  9. How can we learn and adapt when things are not happening as planned?

  Why the UNCTAD SFT Framework?

Freight transport enables economic growth, provides access to markets, connects producers and consumers, determines trade competitiveness, supports effective integration into global supply chains, and contributes to social progress and inclusive development.  At the same time, however, freight transport activity also generates external costs that undermine sustainability objectives such as economic efficiency, social inclusiveness and environmental protection.  Widely known as “externalities”, common freight transport-related external costs include, among others, congestion, pollution, fossil fuel depletion, infrastructure degradation, accidents, Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG), vibration, noise and visual intrusion. The figure illustrates the share of freight transport in vehicle ownership, travel, and energy consumption, and its contribution to air emissions in 2010.


Freight Transport Share in Vehicle Ownership, Travel, Energy Consumption, and Air Emissions in 2010 (ICCT, 2012)

Addressing these externalities requires that external costs from the freight transport sector be internalised and that the sector’s ability to meet relevant sustainability objectives be improved. This entails a careful management of priorities and trade-offs to strike the right balance between the varied economic, social, and environmental sustainability objectives (also explained in the sustainability triangle link).  Together, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ASD), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that came into effect in January 2016, and the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, provide the global framework for advancing the sustainability agenda across all economic sectors including freight transport. For further information, see the link on Sustainable Freight Transport and Linkages to Relevant Global Processes on Sustainable Development.

Against this background, UNCTAD has, over recent years, intensified its work on sustainable freight transport to help developing countries, improve their understanding of the three dimensions of sustainability. UNCTAD’s interventions aim to build and strengthen the capacity of key freight transport stakeholders, including government authorities, policy makers, transport infrastructure managers, freight transport and logistic service providers, and shippers, to effectively plan, design, develop, and implement sustainable freight transport solutions. 

A key contribution in this respect, is the UNCTAD Framework for Sustainable Freight Transport (UNCTAD SFT Framework) that provides guidance and practical tools to mainstream sustainability considerations into freight transport-related policies, plans, operations, and investment decisions.

The SFT Framework is part of the United Nations Development Account Project "Building Capacities of Developing Countries to Shift Towards Sustainable Freight Transport".

  What is Sustainable Freight Transport?

Several elements underpin the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of freight transport.  The underlying linkages and intersections between these elements underscore the sustainability triple bottom line of the freight transport sector:

  • Economic sustainability: relates to factors such as market access, trade competitiveness, costs, quality, reliability, productivity, resilience, connectivity, infrastructure investment, energy efficiency, and, sustainable production and consumption.
  • Social sustainability: relates to factors such as safety, security, employment, labour conditions, affordability, aesthetic impacts, cultural preservation, health, noise and vibration.
  • Environmental sustainability: relates to externalities such as GHG emissions, pollution (air, water and soil), resource depletion, land-use and habitat fragmentation, waste, biodiversity loss, ecosystems degradation, and climate disruptions and impact.

Existing definitions of sustainable freight transport may vary and may promote one particular dimension, such as the environment (green transport), society (inclusive transport) or the economy (efficient and competitive transport).  See the link on the Select Definitions of Sustainable Freight Transport.

From UNCTAD’s perspective, and while not intended as an exhaustive list, achieving a sustainable freight transportation entails, among other features, the ability to provide transportation that is safe, economically efficient, competitive, socially inclusive, accessible, reliable, affordable, fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly, low-carbon, and resilient to external shocks such as disruptions resulting from climate change factors and natural disasters.

Sustainable Freight Transport
Sustainable Freight Transport and the Triple Bottom Line