Shift to electric cars undermining environmental case for HS2, damning assessment suggests

Emissions from construction and operation of controversial railway will outstrip reduction in greenhouse gases from road and air travel

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Tuesday 03 August 2021 18:35 BST
HS2 rail project scepticism

The acceleration of the move to electric vehicles is eroding any small overall benefits HS2 may have had for the environment, according to a withering new assessment of the infrastructure plan.

The almost £100bn railway – already the world’s most expensive, without a single mile of track having yet been laid – will not provide a low-carbon alternative to driving in the future, according to Stephen Glaister, the former head of the rail regulator, who authored the report for the Institute for Government think tank.

This is because the total carbon emissions from building the controversial railway will be the same, if not slightly higher, than the reduction in carbon of removing polluting vehicles from the roads.

With the 2030 deadline for the sale of new combustion engine cars and vans, the transition to electric vehicles is expected to pick up rapidly.

“There will not be enough transfer from road and air to HS2 to offset the emissions from the construction and operation of HS2,” the report states.

Mr Glaister told The Daily Telegraph: “You can’t say that it’s a clear carbon reducing scheme just because it’s a railway.

“Carbon reduction was never a strong argument in favour of HS2, or against it,” he added.

The report states that even according to the official documents, the railway may ultimately have a negative impact on the environment.

“The Full Business Case concedes that HS2 may increase carbon emissions,” the report states, in a section discussing the climate impacts.

The report adds: “The Full Business Case gives a final reckoning: for the full scheme, out of a total net transport benefits of £74bn, £280 million or 0.4 per cent is attributed to carbon reduction.

“If the acceleration of the policy of decarbonising road transport succeeds, the outcome will be smaller.”

The report notes that in January 2021, the government continued to use the decarbonising transport argument to argue in support of HS2.

In its response to a UK government petition on the railway, the official response was: “The government’s decision to proceed with HS2 supports our objectives on climate change as the railway will play a key role in decarbonising our transport sector.

“This is because, once HS2 is in operation, it will offer a low carbon alternative to cars and domestic air travel.”

The assessment comes amid growing concern about the northern end of the project, for which construction now appears to be increasingly in doubt.

The second phase of the plan – which will create Y-shaped branches of the line between Crewe and Leeds and Manchester, has been given a red ‘unachievable’ rating by the Infrastructure Projects Authority – an arm of the Treasury and Cabinet Office.

The IPA said the red rating was given in regard to the likelihood of HS2 achieving its stated “aims and objectives” and doing so “on time and on budget”, according to Construction News.

This red rating means: “Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson told The Independent: “HS2 is a key part of our promise to build back better from Covid-19 and level up regions across the country.

“It will better connect towns and cities across the country, help kickstart an economic recovery by creating new jobs and business opportunities, and provide a low-carbon alternative to cars and planes, playing a key role in achieving our transition to carbon net zero by 2050.”

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