This week, the Government unveiled the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution. One of the points concerns protecting and restoring the natural environment and this was the subject of a separate announcement several days earlier.
This earlier document (14th November) contains many schemes of which I am highlighting a few.
“These may include action towards the creation or restoration of priority habitats, preventing or cleaning up pollution, woodland creation, peatland and wetland restoration and actions to help people connect with nature. This will in turn create and retain a range of skilled and unskilled jobs, such as ecologists, project managers, tree planters and teams to carry out nature restoration.
The government has also announced today that more of England’s beautiful and iconic landscapes will be turned into National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty, in order to increase access to nature for communities and better protect the country’s rich wildlife and biodiversity”.
As we have already discovered, designating a locality as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty does not offer any protection at all; witness what has been happening in the Chilterns due to HS2.
If the aim is genuinely to restore priority habitats, create woodland, protect our rich wildlife and biodiversity, then why are we building HS2 which is the biggest single project destroying our natural environment in the UK?
The Woodland Trust pointed out soon after the HS2 phase one route was announced that at least 34 ancient woodlands would be adversely affected by the construction of this new high speed line. Planting new trees does not make up for the loss or disturbance of ancient woodlands which are several hundred years old. Nor does translocation of ancient woodlands work; once their unique ecosystems are disturbed they cannot be recreated. As far as planting new trees and woodlands are concerned, many of us will remember the hundreds of thousands of saplings planted by HS2 contractors which died in 2019 because they were not watered after they had been planted. Many of us have also witnessed the destruction of woodland, trees and hedgerows to make way for HS2 some of which was quite unnecessary.
In January 2020, the Wildlife Trusts reported that HS2 would impact almost 700 local wildlife sites, 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and 5 wildlife refuges of international importance. The latter two categories are protected by UK law. The Wildlife Trusts wrote to the Prime Minister about their report and their letter was supported by almost 70,000 people.
Trains are a “greener” mode of transport then say planes or cars, but it would be unwise to consider HS2 as “green”. Much carbon is embedded during the construction of concrete sleepers, steel rails and the trains themselves. HS2 Ltd did acknowledge this several years ago and said it would take 120 years for the high speed line to become carbon neutral. However that assumes a high level of usage. If the passenger usage is lower than that forecast, then it will take more than 120 years for it to become carbon neutral.
Many people will argue it is far more important to invest in the current rail network than build a new one, and I would agree with them. In September, the Telegraph reported that the UK needed 4,500 new trains to meet its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. These are needed to replace the many diesels still in use, some of which are quite old. Alongside that we would need to electrify an additional 12,500 km of existing track. Only 39% of the UK rail network is currently electrified compared to Italy, Spain and Germany where at least 60% of services run on electrified lines.
It is not clear whether the 4,500 new trains includes the requirements of the freight train operators. I conducted an analysis two years ago which showed that 88% of the locomotives run by the UK rail freight companies are diesel powered.
While we still think about green issues, please remember that approximately one quarter of the passengers forecast to use HS2 would be “new” passengers, who would not have otherwise made that journey. That is not exactly part of a green ideology.
Airport operators at Birmingham and Manchester have in the past been keen to see HS2 go ahead as they believed it would bring more passengers to their airports, i.e. more people flying by air which is not a green outcome.