To further incentivize the adoption of zero-emission trucks (ZETs), Chinese cities would need more proactive policies like zero-emission freight zones (ZEFZs). Considering goods and freight transportation is central to a city’s economy and social life, the design and implementation of ZEFZs must avoid disruption of the city’s goods supply and the increase of logistic costs, and to ensure inclusive transition of small carriers and financial sustainability for city governments. 

This study takes Beijing as an example to analyze the feasibility and risks associated with ZEFZs. Based on international and domestic case studies on ZEFZs, policy document and literature review, and data analysis of freight demand distribution and truck movements in Beijing, this study constructs four scenarios characterized by different spatial coverages (within the Second Ring Road or the Fifth Ring Road), restricted vehicle segments (LDTs or HDTs), and roll-out years (2024 and 2025) of ZEFZ. We further evaluate the impacts of different ZEFZ scenarios on emissions reduction potentials, goods supply and vehicle fleet replacement, and public and private expenditure. The most cost-efficient and easy-to-implement scenario is recommended as the initial phase of the ZEFZ scheme. For this proposed scheme, risk assessment is performed based on expert interviews. Further, measures to mitigate the risks are proposed based on case studies. 

Balancing public acceptance and environmental benefits, we established four ZEFZ scenarios, including:

  • Conservative scenario, where Beijing will roll out the ZEFZ within the Second Ring Road (not including the Road) in 2025 that bans the access of ICE light-duty trucks—including temperature-controlled trucks, and only allows for ZETs to access. 
  • Light-duty truck (LDT) ban scenario, where Beijing will introduce the ZEFZ within the Second Ring Road (not including the Road) in 2024, that is, one year earlier than the Conservative scenario. 
  • Heavy-duty truck (HDT) ban scenario, in addition to the LDT ban scenario, Beijing will further ban ICE HDTs (excluding temperature-controlled trucks) from entering the Second Ring Road in 2025.
  • Area expansion scenario, in addition to the LDT ban scenario, Beijing will expand the ZEFZ from the Second Ring Road to the Fifth Ring Road (not including the Road) in 2025.

Given data availability, three indicators are chosen to evaluate the above scenarios, including: 1) air pollutant (including NOx, CO, HC, and PM2.5) and carbon emission reduction potentials, 2) freight demands and the numbers of ICE trucks affected (that is, also the fleets for replacement) by the ZEFZ scenarios, 3) and expenditure incurred from carriers or governments to support the zero-emission transition of vehicles, represented by either the TCO gaps or purchase cost gaps between ZETs and ICE trucks. 

The evaluation shows that the LDT ban scenario is the most cost efficient and easy-to-implement scenario, because the abatement cost is the lowest in the LDT ban scenario and it has the lowest numbers of ICE trucks affected for the same level of environmental benefits generated. Therefore, the LDT ban scenario is recommended as the initial phase of the ZEFZ. Implementing the proposed scheme would affect a few thousands to 11,700 trucks serving the Second Ring Road every day in 2024, requiring about 0.1~1.3 billion CNY public and private expenditure to bridge the TCO (or purchase cost) gaps between ZETs and ICE trucks, and generating 1,199~3,365 tonne air pollutant and 210,000~470,000 tonne carbon emissions reduction during 2024~2025, comparing to the case where ZEFZ is not introduced.

Even so, this study shows that the risks associated with the proposed scheme remain considerable. At least fourteen risks are identified, and the overall risk level of the ZEFZ policy—the weighted sum of the fourteen risks—is scored 0.41, falling under the medium risk group based on Beijing’s local standard. Among the fourteen risks, the risk level is particularly prominent for freight carriers when the number of permits for trucks to enter the Fifth Ring Road during the daytime remains unchanged. Without the permits, ZETs switched resulting from the ZEFZ policy can only serve the area within Second Ring Road at nighttime, thereby losing business opportunities and affecting the supply of goods and services to the Second Ring Road. Further, small enterprises such as small carriers and individual truck drivers are particularly vulnerable to the ZEFZ policy.

To mitigate the risks of the proposed ZEFZ scheme, it is necessary to carefully design the ZEFZ policy, develop supportive measures, and create enabling mechanisms:

First, although Beijing has the legal ground to introduce the ZEFZ policy, relevant departments in Beijing still need to carefully design the policy to improve its acceptance and effectiveness, including:

  • Setting up appropriate phase-in period: At least six-month phase-in period is essential to ease public objection and ensure the better preparedness of carriers, charging point operators, and utilities. Further, during the phase-in period, government departments could also require public procurement of ZETs, pilot ZETs, and enhance public outreach and communication (particularly targeting small enterprises). 
  • Enhancing the enforcement of the scheme: Installing APNR cameras for residential neighborhoods and commercial complexes located along the Second Ring Road, to avoid infringement through neighborhood streets or back alleys. Further, penalties should also be established and enforced for both local and non-local vehicles. 

Second, to develop supportive measures, government departments in Beijing should:

  • Optimize the current privileged access policy: Increasing the number of permits for trucks to enter the Fifth Ring Road during the daytime. 
  • Provide economic incentives: For electric trucks, it is recommended to provide scrappage subsidies or operational subsidies that help small carriers to buy a ZET. For hydrogen electric trucks, both city- and district-level purchase and operation subsidies are necessary. 
  • Improve infrastructure coverage: investing in grid capacity expansion in key areas for truck charging, such as parking spaces and docking areas within the Second Ring Road as well as major logistic centers outside the Second Ring Road. Further, the city should increase the numbers of parking spaces and docking bays for trucks (or even zero-emission trucks).

Third, to establish institutionally enabling mechanisms, Beijing should:

  • Form cross-departmental coordination mechanisms to facilitate the collaboration among government departments. 
  • After the implementation of the policy, regular ex-post evaluation should be performed by transport, to inform the future adjustments of the ZEFZ policy.