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  • Dr Paul Nordengen

Sustainability in Transport

Ingrid is my daughter and she asked me to share some of my thoughts and views on sustainability. I was fortunate in that from a young age my mother taught her three children about the importance of healthy eating habits and not wasting (mainly food). As a family we experienced a number of years when money was short, so my mother also taught us about trying to do a number of tasks and errands in one trip rather than making several trips. This was long before sustainability became a major global concern, and the motivation for saving and limiting waste was from a financial rather than a sustainability perspective. When I was at university (in Durban) I was actively involved in the Students Christian Association (SCA) and one year the key speaker at the SCA National Conference (at CYARA in the Magaliesberg) was Ron Sider, author of the book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”. Both his book and his lectures at the conference had a significant impact on my life regarding minimising waste and, indirectly, sustainability.

As the world population has continued to grow, the demand for food, water, goods and services has increased, and in many parts of the world, exceeded supply/availability. So, besides the serious concern of global warming and climate change, there is the challenge to provide for the basic needs of the growing population in the long term. The focus on renewable resources is not something new, but it has certainly become a much higher priority for many more countries, organisations and individuals over the past decade or so.

During the past 25 years I have been involved in research and implementation of projects in heavy vehicle transport – mainly trucks – and so I have become very conscious of the importance of sustainability from a freight transport point of view. Virtually everything one buys is transported by a truck at one point or another and so any economy cannot exist without trucks transporting goods by road. However, there are huge challenges in South Africa (and many other particularly developing countries) regarding freight transport. For one thing (from a sustainability and emissions perspective), a lot more freight should be transported by rail, but rail has to provide a competitive and reliable service for this to happen. Before the 1980s, more than half of freight was transported by rail in South Africa. Now it’s down to around 20%. Furthermore, many trucks in South Africa are not properly maintained, which means that crashes (for example due to ineffective brakes or a tyre bursting) and breakdowns are very common in South Africa (by international standards). Truck crashes and breakdowns contribute to congestion, particularly in urban areas, and therefore increase vehicle emissions. Poorly maintained vehicles (especially trucks) result in an increase in fuel consumption and therefore emissions. Speeding and inadequately trained drivers both contribute to an increase in fuel consumption and emissions.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been very destructive in many ways. However, one of the positive aspects, in my view, has been the fact that a large proportion of the work force around the world has been forced to work from home, and companies have realised that working from home for many employees is in fact feasible, efficient, effective and sustainable. As one can imagine, this has huge benefits in terms of reducing wasted travel time, congestion on the roads and vehicle emissions (as a result of less vehicles on the road and reduced congestion). Virtual meetings have become commonplace, which also can significantly reduce travel time and cost for attendees as well as reducing emissions. I am a great believer in face-to-face interactions (we are after all social beings), but I see that the future of meetings and other business events will consist of both of virtual and physical meetings. For example, for regular weekly or monthly meetings, every 3rd or 4th meeting could be a physical. A third option, which has worked very well for a few committees in which I am involved, are hybrid meetings, a combination of a virtual and a physical meeting. Minimum equipment is required to set up such meetings.

More recently I have become involved in the South African Sustainable Road Freight (SRF) Centre, which is a collaborative effort by various universities, the CSIR and industry stakeholders. The SRF-SA is based on the SRF-UK, which has been in existence for almost 10 years. Similar centres have been and are being established in China and India. The aim of the SRF is to identify and run/co-ordinate projects that contribute to reducing emissions generated by road freight transport. This includes modal shift (e.g. moving more freight by rail), improved logistics (e.g. improving scheduling, reducing empty trips) and vehicle technology (e.g. higher capacity vehicles to reduce trips and emissions and using alternative green energy). The SRF-SA is still in its infancy, but a second cycle of projects, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK as well as industry partners, has just commenced.


So, you’re probably going to ask (or have asked) the question “What can I as an individual do about this global problem?” or “Even if I do something, will it really make any difference?”. It’s true that one person on their own can only make a very small different to the current global warming and sustainability crises – and if one looks at the trends, they really are crises! The fact is (and it’s been proven in the past) that hundreds of thousands or millions of small changes can actually make a significant difference to a particular problem. So, making changes to one’s lifestyle and passing on the message to others are two very important and not insignificant actions that one can take. The basic principle is first reduce, then reuse and finally recycle. For example:

  • As I mentioned earlier, try and consolidate tasks/errands that require trips to the shops – fewer trips mean less fuel/emissions and reduced congestion for other road users;

  • Travel by car together with friends/colleagues where feasible – have a common meeting point where there is safe parking and travel together;

  • Don’t speed and try to avoid harsh acceleration and braking – these greatly increase a vehicle’s fuel consumption;

  • Check your tyre pressures on a regular basis – underinflated tyres increase fuel consumption and are less safe.

  • When buying a car, take into consideration the average fuel consumption;

  • Fly rather than drive to more distant destinations;

  • Continue to work from home if possible;

  • Buy local where possible – local goods are transported much shorter distances than imported goods;

  • Don’t waste food, both in terms of food going off in the fridge and what you leave on your plate after a meal;

  • Where possible, walk or cycle rather than drive. Walking and cycling take more time, but are good for your health, both body and mind


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