Article written by USP researchers was published in an international journal focused on sustainable development

Research conducted, worldwide, between 2015 and 2020, focusing on the road freight transport sector, was not concerned about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) established by the United Nations (UN). Such is the message of the article Road freight transport literature and the achievements of the sustainable development goals – a systematic review.

The article reports on the results of two years of research begun within the project “Brazilian Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Scenarios for Reducing Emissions Related to Natural Gas” of the Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Innovation (RCGI), funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and by Shell of Brazil. It was recently published with open access in the academic journal Sustainability, through the support of the Academic Excellence Program of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (PROEX-CAPES) and within the Graduate Program in Energy of the Institute of Energy and the Environment of the University of São Paulo (IEE-USP).

The Sustainable Development Goals were proposed in 2015, during the UN Sustainable Development Summit, held in New York City. The objective is for the set of 17 goals for protecting the planet to be fully implemented by 2030 by all of the UN member countries, which includes Brazil. The goals deal with such areas as Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), and Resilient Infrastructure, Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization, and Fostering Innovation (SDG 9).

“Our focus was on investigating whether the bibliography dealing with this sector, which makes heavy demands on natural resources while emitting elevated levels of pollutants, gives adequate attention to the objectives of sustainable development. If countries truly desire to achieve these goals by 2030, the specialized literature should be discussing the topic in order to contribute, for example, to the implementation of public policies,” says Flávia Mendes de Almeida Collaço, the lead author of the article. She is a PhD student in the Global Cities Synthesis Center of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP).

Putting this bibliography together was a major challenge for the researchers, who used two large international database search platforms focusing on the academic community: Scopus and Web of Science. “In our first search, we noticed that no text from the period we covered made direct reference to the SDGs”, reports Collaço, who admits that this absence may be specifically influenced by the time frame of the study. “The term could hardly be expected to appear in articles published before 2015, when the SDGs were established. However, it could be present in articles published since 2017,” she points out. “However, this is not the case, even in works that came out in 2020. It is hard to believe that the goals will be met by 2030 if the scientific literature is not talking about the issues now.”

Given the absence of this term or its acronym in the articles available in the two databases, the researchers decided to divide the 140 goals of the 17 SDGs into two categories: “ideals” and “instruments”. “SDG 7, for example, seeks to guarantee access to clean energy in a universal, dependable, and affordable manner. In the workplace, this premise became an ‘ideal’, which was then subdivided into several keywords. The same procedure was followed regarding the ‘instruments’ item, which seeks to show how these ‘ideals’ could be put into action,” says Thiago Luis Felipe Brito, a postdoctoral fellow in the area of energy of the University of São Paulo’s School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH-USP), who also signed the article.

By using the series of keywords listed by the researchers, a programming language initially identified 1,540 articles. Then, with a new batch of filters, the number of texts was decreased to 301. “Next, our team read those 301 works. That was a crucial part of the procedure because the programming language is able to identify articles through keywords, but it is not able to indicate whether the word ‘energy’, for example, appearing in a given text is related to the SDGs,” Collaço continues.

The research team finally further narrowed the number to 86 articles, which were then scrutinized and yielded a systematic review of the international bibliography focused on the issues investigated by the study. All of the texts analyzed showed some type of relationship with SDG 7, which deals with access to clean energy. “Most of the works (56) make an economic analysis of the fuel change in the cargo transport sector, generally from fossil origin to renewable sources,” says Collaço. “However, these articles do not make connections with other SDGs, such as 12, for example, which deals with responsible production and consumption. One of the instruments in this regard discusses subsidy policies for rationalizing the use of inefficient or fossil fuels, which is a critical issue in the debate and deserves to be addressed.”

One of the gaps that caught Brito’s attention had to do with SDG 2 (“zero hunger”). He regrets that “The texts analyzed only briefly mentioned the issue of food safety and how it will reach the final consumer in a sustainable manner.” However, these gaps serve as a warning, in Collaço’s opinion. “They show what still needs to be studied with regard to road freight transport, in order for the sector to comply with the 17 SDGs by 2030. In addition to SDGs 2, 7, 9, and 12, our article points out that studies focusing on the sector should also prioritize SDGs 3 (Health and Well-being), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 13 (Actions Against Global Warming), and 17 (Partnerships for Goals),” she concludes.