Taking sustainability seriously

Forward thinking: Vancouver has taken the step of mapping out a path through to 2050. Credit: Robin Jaffray Forward thinking: Vancouver has taken the step of mapping out a path through to 2050. Credit: Robin Jaffray

COMMENT: In early November, a high level group of advisors to the United Nations Secretary General - with several maritime business people on the team - issued a report on 'Mobilising sustainable transport for development', writes Barry Parker.

Though the report is very broad, and offers a lot of idealism and not so much practicality, planners and strategists at ports ought to take a look.

A point of these experts - who are implementers and deep thinkers - is that Sustainability is not inconsistent with good business. They note that: “The transformation to sustainable transport requires a redirection, rather than any substantial increase, in infrastructure expenditure…”

The nub of their approach centers on making transport planning, policy and investment decisions based on the three sustainable development dimensions: social development, environmental (including climate) impacts and economic growth. In the port context, I’ve seen strands of this approach integrated into local activities, though perhaps motivated by a defensive posture - eliminating congestion which literally slows commerce to a crawl - rather than by altruism.

However, it’s become clear to planners in New York, and other ports around North America where there are no greenfields out of town to just start from scratch, that growth in maritime activities needs to fit in with the community. One prescient port that I came across is the Port of Vancouver, BC, which has mapped out a path to the year 2050 through an iterative planning process. This includes loops back every few years to check whether forecasting assumptions still hold. 

One tenet of the scenarios examined in Vancouver is that sustainability will actually become an advantage as cargo shippers, who will be increasingly taken to task for their choices of socially non-responsive vendors, will be looking for a port that meets the green criteria.  

New York’s efforts to look out into the future are just beginning; the port has now begun a strategic planning exercise. As their effort moves forward, it’s worth looking at the findings of the UN high level advisors, who opine that: “in cities and urban regions, seamless intermodal links will help to shape customer choice”.

The dictates of sustainable transport may open a brave, and slightly uncomfortable, new world for old hands in the business. But society is asking for the holistic view espoused by the UN’s experts, and ports need to have such a view on their radars and in their wheelhouses.  

The United Nations report can be found here.


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