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HS2’s heading in the wrong direction

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;

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Martin Sloman

    OK. First of all Jake, HS2 is a transport project. It is not a device to suck CO2 from the atmosphere. The term HS2 is a bit misleading and rather non-specific – if we went back to Victorian naming habits we would have ended up with the Great London, Birmingham and Northern Junction Railway – bit of a mouthful but gets the message over.

    Oakervee mentions the CO2 issue in Section 5 of his Review. He points out that the emissions during construction (the 8m to 14m tonnes) amount to 0.1% of the annual CO2 emission from the UK of which transport accounts for 33% (2018 figures).

    Now I don’t understand your statement that the 11-12 million tonnes of emissions saved over a 60 year period are additive to the above figure. Oakervee explains where they come from:

    1. Tree planting (HS2 will plant over double the hectarage of trees that it cuts down). Obviously in very early years they will not make much of an impact but this will increase with time as young, growing trees absorb more CO2 than long established trees.

    2. Modal shift: This is shift of passengers from more polluting forms of transport such as road and air to HS2. True we can expect these modes to gradually decarbonise but, even if all road vehicles and planes were powered by battery electricity, they would still consume much more energy from the national grid simply due to the inherent energy efficiency of rail transport arising mainly from the use of steel wheels on steel rails.

    3. Freight take-up of released capacity. This is one of the benefits of HS2 that is often ignored by people that tend to judge the system in isolation. HS2 removes existing high speed trains from the existing (classic network). High speed trains eat up a huge chunk of capacity due to them having to have large stretches of empty track ahead of them to avoid catching up slower freight and passenger trains. Removing these trains can increase classic rail capacity by a factor of 2 or 3. That allows for more frequent and efficient freight and passenger services.

    In fact, the released capacity issue is at the heart of the environmental argument for HS2. Oakervee emphasises the importance of the railway industry making full use of that capacity to develop new services and improve existing ones.

    So, these three factors reduce CO2 that would be emitted were HS2 not to go ahead and so are subtractive from the construction emissions not additive.

    As for the ‘frontloading of emissions’, that is a very clever way of spinning an advantage of HS2 to make it look like a disadvantage. First, these frontloaded emissions are that 0.1% of annual UK emissions or, if you like, 0.005% per year if you average it out over the 20 year construction period of the line.

    However, once construction is completed, emissions will level out at a very low plateau (with a few bumps to account for replacement of equipment etc) and that plateau will be reducing with time as electricity becomes more and more decarbonised.

    Now, I am not saying that if HS2 were not to be built then a motorway would be built in its place (although it is by no means impossible) but in that case, a period of construction (probably producing more emissions than an equivalent rail route) would be followed by continual emissions over the full life of the motorway due to road vehicles. So that would be a backloaded project – now which is better?

    Also, if you are concerned by the amount of emissions produced by HS2 during construction. Just think that a lot of that can be laid at the foot of environmental protesters who have lobbied for longer tunnels, cuttings everywhere and gentler gradients (to reduce noise). All that additional construction results in CO2 emissions.

    HS2 is not the only solution to carbon emissions from transport but it can form part of a nationwide reduction. We need development of services on existing railways (capacity released by HS2) and the development of more pedestrian and cycle routes. (Railways tend to favour denser less sprawling urban development, which is much more easily served by green transport modes).

    I am not going to apologise for supporting this project. If railways attract an ‘aesthetic and ideological’ attachment maybe that is because there is a lot about them that is attractive.

  2. Martin Sloman

    I don’t think I have changed my position on this. I don’t like the use of ‘green’ as a description for a project or activity as it can be misleading and often pretentious. All that we can honestly say is that HS2 is a transport project that will emit very little CO2 over its lifetime in comparison to alternative methods of transport. When you think about it, if during construction and the anticipated 120 years of operation of this route it will not produce any net CO2, that is quite an achievement.

    Even so, for HS2 to make the most positive impact on the environment, then good use has to be made of the capacity on the classic network that is released by the new route. If more freight can go by rail then there is a potential for the railway system to help cut transport emissions generally. Rail is only part of the transport network and more emission reductions can be made by use of electric road vehicles, cycles and walking – it is all part of reducing the 39% of emissions (according to Oakervee) that transport is responsible for in the UK. I suppose it can be compared to the concept of a calorie controlled diet. Eating fruit can form part of that as long as you are not wolfing down the chocolate oranges.

    I have enjoyed this debate as well and one thing you realise is that environmental arguments are often very complex. Your sister organisation, Insulate Britain probably have an easier time of it as few people would argue that more insulation is a bad idea. However, the ‘green’ credentials, or lack of them, of high speed rail are subject to debate. If I have reservations about HS2 it is more along the lines of what other transport projects would the money be better spent on and whether making it easier for people to travel to and from London will help rebalance the economy (it can be argued both ways).

    I realise that I use the word ‘environmental protesters’ loosely. However, that is generally because a lot of the argument against HS2 is on environmental grounds but is made by people whose main interest is in conserving their local landscape. Putting the railway in tunnel or deep cuttings can address those issues but it is not an ‘environmental’ solution. It is rather like Insulate Britain activists who stick themselves to motorways being revealed as shareholders in B and Q.

    I have nothing against people who wish to conserve beautiful landscapes but that doesn’t make them environmentalists or transport experts.

    That is why I feel that so much of the HS2R and Stop HS2 campaign is annoying. So many false or exaggerated claims. The blogger Paul Bigland showed a poster produced by Stop HS2 which was based on an anti-Big Oil poster which had been adapted simply by printing Stop HS2 on top. Why would Big Oil support an electric railway? Then the rail expert Gareth Dennis went through one of Chris Packham’s anti-HS2 rants and identified some fifty false statements.

    To be honest, I think that I have only found two people who belong to these organisations who come up with sensible and thought provoking arguments against HS2. One is yourself, of course, and the other Dr Larch Maxey, who I would feel very nervous crossing swords with. In one of his interviews, Dr Larch talked about ‘Greens for HS2’. He said that he didn’t understand how Greens could support HS2 and he would love to debate with them. I wish he had done that, it would have spared so much time and effort digging tunnels.

    Anyway, you might hear from me again. Best wishes.

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