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In Bangladesh, the demand for freight transportation is rising. At the same time however, the country’s transportation and logistics networks have reached capacity and are in various states of disarray. Investments into alternative modes of transportation such as rail and waterborne freight have also not risen accordingly to absorb this demand. This all comes on the backdrop of excessive levels of transportation-related pollution, unsafe road conditions, and unnerving projected climate change impacts that all make freight transportation fundamentally unsustainable in Bangladesh. As such, taking stock of Bangladesh’s situation as it relates to sustainable freight transportation is important for this country of over 160 million people and for the South Asian subregion.        

The purpose of this study is to encourage the Government of Bangladesh and other relevant stakeholders to make planning, policy, and investment decisions in freight transportation based on the three dimensions of sustainable development: the environmental, economic, and social dimensions. This study uses an understanding of the three dimensions and their interlinkages as elaborated by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To achieve this, comprehensive research was conducted to inform its direction and recommendations. The desk study reviewed existing government documents and other reports and articles that overlap with the subject of sustainable freight transportation in Bangladesh. Ultimately, it suggests that a national sustainable freight transportation strategy would be required to achieve optimal results.

There is a special emphasis in the study on emissions reduction, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (primarily CO2 in this context). With over 20 per cent of global CO2 emissions being derived from transportation and 40-50 per cent of that percentage coming from the transportation of freight, it is important to target the sector in the fight against climate change. This is particularly relevant to Bangladesh, as the country’s total freight transportation in ton-km continues to rise amid an outdated trucking fleet, a lack of economies of scale, poor road conditions and congestion, limited modal share (another major emphasis in this report), and a dependence on imported fossil fuel. 

All these factors contribute to emissions, negative externalities, and economic losses that can otherwise be avoided in a world where Bangladesh stands as one of the most vulnerable countries to GHG-induced climate change. In addition, there has not been a significant global energy transition in the transportation sector, where there is an overreliance on fossil fuels and a lack of greener alternatives that fundamentally prohibits the genuine sustainability of transportation. 

This study is divided into five sections, before ending in a conclusion. To start, Section 1 provides a background, with the impetus behind the study being briefly summarized before defining what sustainable freight transportation is. Broadly speaking, sustainable freight systems are those that capture the linkages and intersections between the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainable development. 

The section also describes the role of efficient logistics in the economy and its implications for Bangladesh. While economic growth itself drives the demand for freight transportation, the supporting logistical environment’s level of efficiency and quality can also act as a cap on this economic growth. Section 1 concludes with a short discussion on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on freight transportation. 

Section 2 then follows with a short review of the major “actors” in sustainable freight transportation: the government and the private sector. Through regulation, planning, financing, and overseeing state transportation systems and public infrastructure, the government plays a key role in sustainable freight transportation. The private sector, meanwhile, is an equally important actor in sustainable freight transportation. In Bangladesh, the private sector is engaged in freight transportation activities across the sector as providers of logistics services and operators of trucks, port terminals, and inland container depots (ICDs). Where the public and private sector merge can be found public-private partnerships (PPPs). Such PPPs are often touted as a way for poorly resourced governments to construct infrastructure and the idea appears to have support in Bangladesh. 

Following this background on the actors, Section 3 moves on to provide the rational for tackling the challenge of freight transportation in a sustainable manner and sustainable freight’s linkages to existing national plans and international commitments. There exists a strong case for sustainable freight transportation in Bangladesh. Given the holism of sustainability, with the myriad of interconnected factors that must be considered to meet the criteria of “sustainable,” sustainable development is ideal for tackling and linking together the complex and interconnected issues facing societies. As such, sustainable freight transportation can respond to many of Bangladesh’s pressing issues. 

These include but are not limited to effectively meeting the demand for goods transportation with quality, reliable, and cost-effective service levels; cutting down on GHG and other fuel-related pollution; reducing accidents and fatalities on the road; and enhancing connectivity and economic growth across the country. Additionally, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and sustainable freight transportation would also need to consider the impacts of climate change on transportation and logistics infrastructure. These needs are all identified in one way or another in Bangladesh’s existing plans. Section 3.B identifies some of these national plans. In terms of linkages to international commitments, Section 3.C discusses two of the major ones: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement. Achieving the SDGs in Bangladesh necessitates a shift to sustainable freight transportation. There are numerous SDGs that are relevant to sustainable freight transportation and some of the most relevant include SDGs 3.6, 3.9, 7.2, 7.3, 9.1, 9.a, 11.6, 12.c, 13.1, and 13.2. 

The Paris Agreement requests each country to outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions, known as their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Some listed measures to achieve the unconditional target are to reduce congestion (thereby enhancing fuel efficiency) and to promote modal shift. On modal shift, listed measures are the purchase of modern rolling stock and signaling for railways, electrification, and double tracking of the railway, and improved and enhanced inland water transport (IWT). For IWT, this means better navigation, improved maintenance of vessels, enhanced engine performance, and the introduction of electric water vessels.

Next, Section 4 then lays out the challenges facing Bangladesh’s freight sector that need to be addressed to realize a more sustainable freight transport system. These challenges relate to climate change, road transport, rail transport, inland water transport, air transport, seaports, shipbreaking, warehousing, fuel and emissions, retiring old trucks, truck types and size, operator resistance, technology platforms, e-commerce, customs, planning, costs, and road safety. Going through these challenges, the key issues identified are summarized on the following page.

Last, Section 5 presents a list of performance indicators that can be refined to define and track sustainable freight transportation. The list is divided into several pillars organized under means of
implementation (e.g., finance; science, technology, and innovation; and data and statistics) and other relevant themes such as emissions, climate adaptation/resilience, inclusion, health and safety, infrastructure, economic considerations, logistics facilities, and “others.