Author: Jake Smaje
A common refrain from supporters of HS2 is the amount of traffic it will remove from motorways and the ensuing reduction in carbon emissions. Reducing the amount of emissions from transport is a worthy ambition, but the idea that HS2 is an effective or efficient contribution to fighting climate change is very hard to sustain. There is one key reason for this, the emissions from HS2 are largely frontloaded to its construction. This is a massive problem for attempts to make an environmental case for HS2, and I will show you why.
The Oakervee Review of HS2 commissioned by the department of transport estimated that emissions from construction, this is happening now, are between 8-14 million tonnes of CO2. They then estimate that over the first sixty years of the project 11-12 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved. The report concludes it is unclear whether HS2 is positive or negative in relation to green-house gas (GHG) emissions.
Now using this data to argue for HS2 as an environmental project, in particular as a form of climate change mitigation faces two key problems;
- The first and the most pressing is the urgency with which we need to reduce emissions to avoid 1.5C and the potential tipping points that will act as a catalyst after this point. The IPCC and UN say we are at code red for humanity, writing we ‘must act decisively now, to keep 1.5 alive’. Earth is likely to hit the tipping point of 1.5C in about a decade. There are serious concerns that once we hit this point a series of tipping points will make climate change mitigation much harder, or potentially impossible. It is possible to see against these climate change timeframes the 60-year period that may lead to HS2 being a carbon neutral project is woefully inadequate. In fact, HS2 contributes, albeit in a small way, to the escalating climate crisis more than it can mitigate it by bringing us closer to irreversible tipping points.
- The second key problem is that carbon emissions are cumulative. So the 8-14 million tonnes of CO2 emitted during construction are out there contributing to global warming and the 11-12 million tonnes of CO2 saved are additional emissions on top of this. This is a cynical and depressing analysis of future carbon use. What it is arguing is that in the first 60 years of HS2’s operation people will continue to emit at a similar rate as they do now. This is an argument that basically suggests no mitigations will be taken at the time when it is most important, as demonstrated above.
The attempts at an environmental case for HS2 misunderstands the urgency of the climate science presented by the IPCC and other bodies. Maybe if HS2 had been completed in the 1980s it would be a useful piece of infrastructure in combating the climate crisis, but as of now it is part of the problem and not a solution. I often wonder why HS2 elicits such an enthusiastic support in certain groups and I have come to think it is a project some see romantic, whether they want to overlay this with a patriotism, regionalism or eco-modernism the scale and design of the project appeals to them, this aesthetic and ideological attachment does nothing to change the projects lack of environmental credentials at a time when it matters most.