Getting to Zero Now
A bold new program is accelerating the transition to zero-emissions trucks.
The time is now. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is mulling over a national truck emissions standard, the soonest it could begin putting this in motion is 2027. We cannot afford to wait that long. Delivering Zero Emissions Communities, a one-year accelerator program supported by the Zero Now Fund, is empowering three cities—Chicago, San Diego, and San Jose, California—to take bold, concrete steps toward introducing 100 percent zero-emissions commercial vehicles today.
The reasons for urgency are manifold. The transportation sector is responsible for 37 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Gas- and diesel-powered trucks are a major source within this sector, continually belching out black smoke that not only exacerbates smog and soot but contains more than 40 known carcinogens. This toxic mix leads to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases—including asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes—and can cause premature death, contributing to about $820 billion in health costs each year nationally. More than 40 percent of U.S. residents currently live in counties with unhealthy levels of smog and/or soot.
Moreover, this air pollution is particularly prevalent among communities of color and low-income communities. Freeways and freight hubs are disproportionately located where these people live, so residents are immersed in it, facing the most direct and constant onslaught. The pollution also harms those who work in and alongside these trucks, such as truck drivers, railroad employees, and longshoremen.
As our cities experience the effects of climate change—from increasing heat waves and wildfires to hurricanes and flooding—we must actively reduce emissions from the transportation sector by transitioning to all-electric trucks that are themselves powered by clean energy. Transitioning to zero-emissions trucks is essential to cleaning up the dirty air that is making all of our communities sick and harming the planet.
Cities are well positioned to lead the charge. While federal and state mandates take time to write, approve, and execute, city governments can be more nimble and implement impactful actions more quickly. They can partner with community groups in the most impacted neighborhoods to co-create solutions that improve air quality and help to undo systemic inequities.
The new Delivering Zero Emissions Communities program is one bold solution. Supported by the Zero Now Fund—a pooled fund of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, ClimateWorks Foundation, and Tempest Advisors—it includes CALSTART, Delivery Associates, Energy Foundation, the International Council on Clean Transportation, and NRDC as partners. Projects will be aimed toward early wins that deliver results on the ground within the year, while also laying the foundation for enforceable policies to ensure a transition to zero-emissions vehicles in major commercial segments over the next few years.
“The Delivering Zero Emissions Communities program is about ambitious, immediate, impactful action to reduce diesel pollution,” says NRDC Healthy People & Thriving Communities transportation director Amanda Eaken.
Three cities that participated in the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge have won spots in the program: Chicago, San Diego, and San Jose, California. These cities will work with community and private sector partners on their projects to focus on freight, delivery, and other commercial vehicles. Technical support will be tailored to the needs and goals of each city and may include policy development, infrastructure planning for electric vehicle charging, implementation assistance, guidance sourcing federal funding opportunities, community engagement, and connections to industry.
In Chicago, the plan includes a redesign of the Drive Clean Chicago program that aims to deploy zero-emissions commercial vehicles in overburdened communities, a cargo e-bike pilot, and a program to incentivize businesses to transition completely to electric fleets. Community partners from Center for Neighborhood Technologies and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization will help to design the programs to ensure they work for everyone. In San Diego, support will go toward developing a Medium- and Heavy-Duty Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Blueprint that shifts decision-making power to communities most impacted by diesel pollution and identifies barriers and solutions to the electric vehicle transition. The Environmental Health Coalition will have a seat at the planning table. San Jose will use support from the program to launch an Equity Task Force with community members, create an Urban Freight Working Group with private-sector partners, design a Zero Emissions Neighborhood pilot program, and pass a zero emissions resolution in San Jose City Council.
The transition to electric trucks has the potential to reduce costs for most companies, who can pass those savings along to consumers. Businesses like Amazon and Coca-Cola are already investing in electric trucks, which save them money through lower fuel and maintenance costs. And because electric vehicles can charge when electricity demand is low (e.g., overnight), this helps prevent power surges that can create problems in the grid and spreads more sales over the fixed costs of the electrical grid, thereby reducing electricity bills for all customers—a trend we’re already seeing in the utility service territories with the most electric vehicles.
“Mayors Lori Lightfoot, Todd Gloria, and Sam Liccardo know that vague goals and far-off promises aren’t good enough,” says Eaken. “That’s why we’re joining together to rapidly transition to zero-emissions commercial vehicles that will keep our air clean and our communities safe, while also paving a path for other cities and states across the country to follow.”