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Economic connectivity is a key political priority for Southeast Asian countries that are members of the ASEAN. Growing subregional transport and trade have generated an ‘economy of scale’ effect for the economic and social development. Over the last decade, a rapidly expanding labour force and a shift in economic activity towards the higher-productivity manufacturing sectors have contributed to the poverty reduction outcomes. 

The transformational trade benefits of geographical proximity can be harvested only when the freight and logistics connectivity is efficient and sustainable. Global and regional developments in the economic, geopolitical, environmental, climate, and financial dimensions are reaching an upsurge, creating both unique challenges and opportunities for countries in Southeast Asia. Thus, the freight and logistics sector among the ASEAN Member States (AMS) is at crossroads. 

Regional consultations4 carried out by ESCAP have established that developing efficient transport connectivity among countries faces unique challenges that need a comprehensive approach towards sustainability. Since freight transport is so often a cross-border activity, concerted action at the ASEAN level will enhance the chances of success. 

The sustainable freight and logistics sector is now universally recognised as one of the core enablers of economic and social development.5 Since 2000, there has been a surge in global and regional initiatives and agreements that support the implementation of sustainable freight by encouraging stakeholders to improve freight transport efficiency and reduce external costs (like emissions and accidents) and strengthen resilience.  

The proposed ASEAN Sustainable Freight Strategy 2030 in the report is a fit-for-purpose and future-proof freight strategy that will position the ASEAN Member States to meet the needs of the emerging economic, environmental, and social risks and opportunities. The approach adopted is circular, i.e. the starting point is the identification of ‘problems’ in the freight and logistics sector that need to be addressed, around which the strategy is then developed. 

The strategy is founded on the principle of “Common Borders; Common Vision; Common Solutions” and acknowledges that freight transformation in the subregion will take years. However, based on past and present experiences, there is a general acceptance that a series of no-regret or quick win actions should be identified for immediate action. By focusing on no-regret actions, the strategy responds to the call from within the freight community for guidance on how the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals should be integrated within the freight operations.

For enhancing freight sustainability among ASEAN Member States the strategy provides, among others,  for launching a sustainable freight transport capacity-building initiative, establishing a freight observatory and a sustainable freight coordinating platform at ASEAN level, encourage and promote sustainable modes of transport such  as by developing a strategic plan on enhancing  rail interoperability, and addressing urban freight transport challenges.

The proposed ASEAN Sustainable Freight Strategy 2030 is not intended to replace existing plans and investments but rather aims to provide actions to maximise the outputs of the system. The strategy must be seen together with and not in isolation from existing national logistics plans and trade and transport facilitation plans.

The strategy provides direction to all parts of the freight and logistics supply chain, including all modes. As well as setting out governments intention for freight and logistics, it provides for an important role for the private sector entities and civil society members. The strategy would facilitate the implementation of the ASEAN Transport Strategic Plan 2016-2025. Ultimately, the outcome of the strategy will be as strong as its actors. Its success will depend on its ownership and how it is ultimately synchronised into national plans.