The “green” case for HS2 – poor research and the romance of big promises

The “green” case for HS2 – poor research and the romance of big promises

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’[1]. Even the government’s own full business case acknowledges the project might increase carbon emissions according to Glaister[2]. 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[3]. 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[4].

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[5], 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[6]. 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[7].

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[8]. 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.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/hs2-electric-cars-carbon-environment-b1896144.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/hs2-electric-cars-carbon-environment-b1896144.html

[3] https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1507006/HS2-latest-cost-birmingham-leeds-east-midlands-cancelled

[4] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/grant-shapps-says-a-lot-21749877

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51115637

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51115637

[7] 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

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/10/hs2-potentially-highly-polluting-bentonite

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Martin S

    It is good to hear HS2 Rebellion at least acknowledging that there is an environmental case for HS2. Nobody would say that the project is above criticism but some of the claims made by HS2R and other anti-HS2 organisations seldom stray from the realm of complete hyperbole.

    At the end of the day, HS2 is a 19 metre wide double track railway of which we have some 11,000 route miles already in this country. It’s CO2 production including construction and operation over 120 years will not exceed that of the UK road network over one month. It will encourage modal shift from air and car but its main environmental benefit will come from freeing up space on the classic network for freight and additional passenger services as an alternative to road transport.

    Yes, there will be some loss of ancient woodland, which is regrettable, but it will be absolutely minimal and HS2 is tunnelling under sections of ancient woodland to reduce the impact massively. Railways, by their nature, favour denser urban development and so help to conserve nature and wildlife. Then, of course, there is the large environmental mitigation that will accompany the project – making it one of the greenest major projects ever undertaken.

    It is the ‘Greens for HS2’ and other pro-environment, pro HS2 bodies that are the informed parties to this debate. You need to listen to what they are saying. They are concerned about the climate emergency as much as anyone but realise that high speed electric railways are an important way of combating this scourge. If anyone is being romantic it is those who think that living in tunnels and tree houses is a way to save the planet when all they are doing is obstructing the lawful construction of a green modern electric railway.

  2. Jake Smaje

    Thank you for your kind words on my article. I think it is important to avoid hyperbole where possible. However, I fear you have misunderstood my argument and the evidence in relation to HS2.
    HS2 as a project will not be carbon neutral, this is not a claim made by HS2 or the government. It is also well documented that the claims made by HS2 are based on a business-as-usual business case which ignores increasing moves towards green policy elsewhere. As I illustrate above one of these being changes to policy surrounding electric cars, but equally an increasing move towards digitalisation of work and many other green policies and developments. The arguments made around freight and road use are also short sited failing to recognise that a green future should need much less freight due to local consumption networks, increased reuse and recycling of products and reduced consumption of resources as a whole.
    Arguments about HS2s role in reducing freight transport on the roads fail to see that not just the transport but the things in the vehicles (or trains if HS2 goes ahead) are equally impactful in the environmental crises we face. Our roads are clogged year-round by the import of cheap and short-lived plastic that has travelled the world to be briefly consumed. An examination of the necessity and climate impact of the majority of freight renders the transfer of it’s movement to rail a redundant policy rather than some great green innovation.
    There is a lot to unpack in railways creating denser urban environments which are good for nature and wildlife. This is an argument often made, but fiercely debated and the jury is very much still out. For example monocultures (planting one crop on a large scale) are very bad for the environment and conservation but are required to maintain cities, alongside the transport of goods to these cities and the pressures they put on things like water resources in the local area (the South East of England is in a perilous water situation in no small part because of the size of London). I would, slightly embarrassingly, direct you to my father’s blog (https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/) for a counter-argument to urban greenism.
    The opportunity cost of this project are huge and investing this money elsewhere would likely have a dramatically larger positive impact on reducing the carbon footprint of the UK.
    I have unfortunately read, listened and fact checked a lot of Greens for HS2 and have found their arguments, incorrect, poorly thought through and wanting of a holistic environmentalism that understands the systematic nature of the problems we face.
    The activists of HS2 Rebellion are not suggesting living underground, or in tree houses is a way to save the planet, but are demonstrating that it is an effective tactic in stopping and slowing projects whose environmental impacts are negative. I would also say that describing the construction as lawful is… ill informed. The railway has been approved but the litany of laws broken in it’s construction are nothing less than systematic.
    It is a shame you turn to hyperbole yourself describing it as ‘one of the greenest major projects undertaken’, if it is (it’s not) we are in a much larger pickle than we thought. You have also misinterpreted me saying there is a green case for HS2, a case can be made for anything whether or not it has an empirical basis. The green case made for HS2 has very little basis in empirical fact.
    I am pleased you commented it provides a lovely example of why I wrote the article.

  3. Martin S

    HI Jake,
    Thanks very much for your reply. When I posted my initial reply and it didn’t come up immediately, I though that ‘they only post comments they agree with’. Obviously not – and I am very grateful for that.

    The green movement has incurred a lot of hostility recently – often down to the antics of your sister organisation Extinction Rebellion. I remember seeing a news report of XR protestors gleefully tearing up some grassed area outside a Cambridge college (if I recall correctly). Probably a good ‘green’ reason for doing that but it left most of us scratching our heads! – So it is good to have a rational discussion on this subject.

    I don’t know if anyone has said that HS2 will be carbon neutral but I certainly haven’t. Human beings have not been carbon neutral since we started lighting fires and smelting metals to make hunting implements. In fact, you could argue that no animal that breathes in oxygen and emits carbon dioxide can be described as ‘carbon neutral’. All that we can legitimately do is to reduce our carbon emissions by careful consideration of the things that we do. We can mitigate those emissions that we do make by green activities such as planting trees but the best answer is either not to carry out any carbon producing activities or to reduce the carbon footprint of those activities. HS2 falls into the latter category.

    I understand the argument that freight consists of the unnecessary movement over long distances of goods that we don’t need but is it realistic to suppose that we can reduce that movement to zero? More realistically, maybe we could reduce the quantity of long distance freight by half – in which case, it makes sense to further reduce the carbon footprint by using rail as a means of transport for as much of that freight as possible.

    With respect to your father, I don’t know much about the green impact of farming but I see the creation of denser urban areas as something that we should actively pursue for a variety of reasons that includes reducing our carbon footprint by a greater emphasis on walking, cycling and use of public transport. I am not so sure that the debate on this has been as fierce as you say. Often, though, the opposition comes from those who favour sprawling car-dependent suburbs. People may not like cities but with a world population over 7 billion and rising, we are not going to see an end of them any time soon.

    As for legality. I am a member of a group that campaigns to extend HS2 to serve our home city of Liverpool. That has involved following the lengthy process that has led to the Acts of Parliament that have made the creation of HS2 legal, which necessarily includes the powers to acquire land and properties along the course of the route. Whilst you can argue, probably with some good reason, that this acquisition has not always followed the letter of the law, the fact remains that anybody deliberately obstructing the construction is breaking the law and something has to be done about it. Moving people who refuse to move will always provoke allegations of assault – often with justification – but don’t forget that there are also allegations that HS2 construction workers have been the subject of assault.

    I accept that your approach to environmentalism may be the only way of ensuring a sustainable future but I would question whether you make this clear to those people who support you. Do you really have common purpose with people in the Chilterns who live car-dependent lifestyles involving daily commutes on the M40 but will object to HS2 on grounds of the impact on their local area? Maybe you should be more open about the type of future society that you want to see.

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