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Freight demand continues to grow in the North and Central Asia subregion in line with a growing population, industrialization, trade expansion, and economic development. So further development of freight transport systems is a crucial for economic competitiveness of countries in North and Central Asia. 

However, growing freight transport has negative externalities, evidenced by an increase in carbon emissions, air pollution, growing road accident fatalities and injuries, noise pollution, congestion, and environmental degradation all of which would further intensify unless proactive steps are taken. 

The countries in the subregion are also faced with the challenge of achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through economic growth and, therefore, will need to grow their freight and logistics systems. At the same time, if freight transport continues to grow in a business-as-usual manner, it will undermine other SDG targets related to air pollution, climate change, and road safety. 

The ambition set by the Paris Agreement on climate change, to which many countries are signatory, calls for further decarbonization in the transport sector in the medium to long term, which would require a substantive reorientation of freight and logistics systems in the subregion.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the smooth flow of the transport sector due to restrictions imposed by countries among other factors. In order to keep essential supply chains moving, freight needs to move; however, its flow was badly disrupted by the pandemic.

It, therefore, appears that the pandemic is going to create significant and lasting shifts that impact both demand and supply the contours of which are still emerging.

ESCAP is currently implementing a United Nations Development Account tranche twelve project on enhancing a shift towards sustainable freight transport in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the regional track, of the project the project contains a specific deliverable: to develop subregional strategies on sustainable freight transport including by encouraging subregional cooperation among countries to deal with pandemics through experience sharing in areas such as modal shift to sustainable modes of transport. 

Accordingly, this study undertakes a subregional assessment on sustainable freight transport, with several country examples and a draft subregional strategy to enhance the shift towards sustainable freight transport in countries in North and Central Asia.

The study also examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on freight activity and sustainability in NCA and recommends further measures to mitigate those impacts. In this regard, it also documents some of the practices that countries instituted during the pandemic and attempts to classify them into temporary and medium to long term measures. 

The study identifies the main challenges and obstacles that undermine the sustainability of the freight transport sector in NCA and propose recommendations in this regard. This study and proposed strategy are drafted bearing in mind the necessity of balancing the three pillars (or dimensions) of sustainable development—the environmental, economic, and social—in sustainable freight transport, considering relevant existing policy and governance contexts. 

The main elements of the strategy focus on (a) statistics on freight transport sustainability; (b) corridor based harmonization; (c) promotion of smart technologies and solutions, especially for international transport; (d)sustainability assessment and project labelling; and (e) regional cooperation on sustainable freight transport.