Author of blog: Jake Smaje
There is a small, but relatively vocal, group of environmentally minded people who support HS2 as a project that is a magic bullet to various environmental problems. Proponents for this magic bullet train will argue that public transport is key to addressing the climate crisis. While I largely agree that public transport policy is a key consideration to the crisis caused by a fossil fuel energy structure, an unquestioning ideology of “public transport=good” forgets that for all intents and purposes most passenger planes are a form of public transport. Groups like Greens for HS2 and their proponents on twitter clog up feeds with jibes that suggest those opposed to HS2 are tree hugging NIMBYs opposed to efforts to create a sustainable infrastructure rather than pragmatic people who see HS2 as a poorly managed project, whose environmental credentials are, at best, debatable and view its rapidly inflating costs as a missed opportunity to invest in much needed, and more effective, infrastructure elsewhere.
A common argument is that HS2 will reduce traffic on our roads and reduce the need to drive freight across the country in polluting lorries. While this has always been a controversial claim, contested by many groups that would benefit if this was the case, it is further discredited by the assumptions cooked into the original HS2 cost benefit analysis. However, policies unrelated to HS2 look likely to have a much greater impact sooner. The impact of electrifying cars by 2030 is likely to mean the carbon emissions for building the railway will not be mitigated by reductions in traffic as this will happen anyway. An Institute of Government report authored by former head of the rail regulator Stephen Glaister argued, ‘there will not be enough transfer from road and air to HS2 to offset the emissions from construction and operation of HS2’. Even the government’s own full business case acknowledges the project might increase carbon emissions according to Glaister. Its impact is further reduced by the other rail lines that are planned such as the Northern Powerhouse Rail and the likelihood of the eastern leg being axed, as it is expected to be announced later this week. Scrapping the eastern leg means that the project would now only serve to bolster other areas which are relatively well-served by existing rail infrastructure. Grant Schapps is not wrong when he says ‘a lot has changed’ since HS2 was first envisaged 15 to 20 years ago.
While carbon, emissions and energy are essential components of any solution to the climate crisis, to focus only on these components is simplistic and ignores the nature of the converging crises of the twenty-first century. Emissions, pollution and biodiversity loss are not crises independent of each other and HS2’s plaudits are eerily silent on the line’s impact on British ecosystems and biodiversity. Beyond causing historic devastation by decimating 108 ancient woodlands, HS2 threatens some of the most protected habitats in the country. The concern for these habitats is not simply sentimental but a genuine recognition that biodiversity is essential to agriculture and the survival of a healthy countryside. We do need public transport, and often new infrastructure does encroach on the natural world, but a project like HS2 whose impact on the flora and fauna of the countryside is catastrophic and whose environmental benefits are controversial is clearly a risk not worth taking. To be clear stopping HS2 is not just about saving a few trees but preserving irreplaceable habitats. Habitats which are home to many iconic and rare animals that play an important role in the ecology of the British countryside. The Wildlife Trust argues that the Dingy Skipper Butterfly could become extinct and white lawed crayfish and barn owls will be heavily affected. Proponents for HS2 and HS2 themselves argue that mitigations have been put in place, but the organisations we would normally rely on to conserve nature say these mitigations are inadequate.
As the HS2 project, or experiment, has continued it has become increasingly clear the project is not going well. Plagued by poor planning, cost overshoots and significant pollution caused by errors it takes a certain bullishness to continue to argue that the cost benefit of the line first imagined in the noughties has stayed the same. The recent leak of 3,000 tonnes of highly polluting bentonite clay into chalk aquifers must be considered, along with other environmental issues, in whether the project is viably seen as a sustainable measure or business as usual with little care for the environment. There is a certain head in clay mentality among HS2’s green proponents who seem to ignore these events while looking towards a utopian goal of HS2’s completion, rather than recognising they contribute to the environmental crises which they claim HS2 will help solve. If you put almost any large organisation under scrutiny it will be possible to find examples of misleading approaches. But considering the destruction HS2 is causing and the dubious basis for claims of environmental benefits can the organisation even be trusted to honestly engage with debate?
Good sustainable infrastructure is exciting. While technology isn’t the only thing required to address the ecological and climate crises, it plays an important role. However, HS2’s alleged positive impact on the environment is so marginal it means it is increasingly unlikely that it could be considered an integral part of the country’s sustainable infrastructure. Instead, evidence points to it being a tragic “white elephant” which will leave in its wake a trail of missed opportunities, polluted landscapes, and ecological destruction.
It is not shocking that a project as poorly managed and envisioned as HS2 has united such a broad coalition of opposition as diverse as the Federation of Small Businesses, Conservative Party members, the Taxpayers Alliance, and Extinction Rebellion. However, the stubborn and small group of environmentally aware people who continue to act as HS2’s missionaries is surprising. HS2 has done little to provide evidence for its bold claims around its environmental benefits, as evidenced by its fact-checking webpage being a redirect notice for the past couple of months. The environmental claims of HS2 are the prioritisation of rhetoric over action and until this changes Greens for HS2 and green supporters of the project will remain one of the oddities created by poor research and the romance of big promises.
 https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/What%27s%20the%20damage%20-%20Full%20Report%20digital2_0.pdf; https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/hs2; https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/impact-hs2-londons-wildlife