The TSC’s view of the carbon issue

In a week when the Lords Science and Technology Select Committee says the Government is “too complacent” about Britain’s nuclear energy strategy it’s worth looking at what the Transport Select Committee said about the carbon impacts of HS2. That’s because the impacts of running HS2 on Britain’s carbon emissions are tightly connected to our energy policies, and use of low carbon electricity generation like nuclear power.

The Coalition Government decided to promote high speed rail, and HS2 in particular, as part of their efforts to create a low carbon economy, so it’s not surprising the Transport Select Committee included a section on the carbon impacts of HS2 in the report they issued recently.

They pointed out that a substantial amount of carbon would be emitted during construction: this is not taken into account in the case presented by HS2 Ltd.

The TSC also pointed out that because HS2 trains are powered by electricity, the carbon emissions of operating HS2 depend on whether the UK’s electricity supply is “decarbonised”. Without moves to generate more of the UK’s electricity by low carbon sources, such as nuclear or wind, HS2’s operations will only be carbon neutral in contradiction with the Coalition Goverment’s aims.

In France, however, high speed rail is part of a low carbon strategy. Why the difference?

The following table was in the TSC document (it’s their table 2): it shows the proportion of electricity generated by low carbon means, such as nuclear power. France, Germany, and Spain all have a much higher proportion of electricity generated by non-fossil fuels, meaning that when changing from road or air travel in those countries, there is a much higher carbon benefit.

Country Population (2010) Area&NBSP: High-speed lines in operation (2011) Rail passenger use (20091) Nuclear and renewables as % of total electricity production (2010) CO2 from domestic aviation (2009)
(million) (km sq) (miles) (million passenger kilometres) (%) (million tonnes)
France 64.7 547,660 1,185 88,610 89.6 4.5
Germany 81.8 348,630 803 81,206 41.0 2.1
Italy 60.3 294,140 577 49,524 26.5 2.2
Spain 46.0 499,110 1,285 23,056 53.9 3.6
United Kingdom 62.0 241,930 71 52,765 23.6 1.8


Note: 1 Rail passenger figure for Italy is for 2008

Eurostat demo_pjan
The World Bank
Union Internationale des Chemins de fer (UIC)
Eurostat rail_pa_total
Eurostat nrg_ind_33a
House of Commons Library (SN/SC/5533) EU ETS and Aviation

The Transport Select Committee report concludes the section on carbon by saying “Table 2 also shows there is no simple link between highspeed rail and carbon emissions from domestic aviation.”

However the picture is even less favourable then the table implies.

Most of Britain’s non-fossil fuel generated electricity comes from nuclear power. All our nuclear power stations are reaching the end of their generating lives. Programmes to extend their generating life can only do so much: by the 2020s all Britain’s existing nuclear power stations need to be replaced to maintain our existing, relatively low level, of non-fossil fuel electricity generation.

Without genuine efforts to decarbonise our electricty grid, all carbon benefits claimed by HS2’s proponents are immediately worthless. And if our electricity generation is decarbonised, then the same carbon benefits could also accrue to a fully electrified railway network, or other electricity-powered modes of transport.

5 comments to “The TSC’s view of the carbon issue”
  1. Pingback: The TSC’s view of the carbon issue | Pen Spot

  2. Seems to be a hell of lot of evidence that trains (and esp. high speed trains) are the most efficient and sustainable means of transport though?

    • High speed trains use significantly more energy then conventional speed trains: see the latest briefing paper produced by House of Commons Library:

      High Speed Two (HS2): the debate
      RESEARCH PAPER 11/75 17 November 2011

      p104 “Paul Davies, head of policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said: “We believe we have uncovered a number of flaws in the proposals, some of which question the claim that HS2, as proposed, will reduce carbon emissions.” The engineers said the energy consumption of trains doubles when the speed rises from 200kph to 300kph. HS2 services will travel at up to 360kph when phase one opens, and the track will be designed to handle up to 400kph. This would lead to an increase in emissions, as well as a rise in the amount of power required for each journey…”

  3. Government targets are to get to 15% renewables by 2020. New nuclear plants to be completed by 2025 will replace the ones that will have closed. Even so, based on current levels, two thirds of electricity would still be coal and gas – assuming we can still get it.

    The world is facing major uncertainty regarding energy supplies. Carbon reduction, whether voluntary or forced, is inescapable. Experts and academics are now pointing out a stark reality “…there will be NO combination of alternative energy solutions that might enable the long term continuation of economic growth, or of industrial societies in their present form and scale.”

    HS2, running at 360 km/h, 14 trains in each direction, would require the average output of 336 wind turbines. To put this in perspective, our largest off shore wind farm off Thanet in Kent, consists of 100 turbines – enough to power 240,000 homes or 4 HS2 trains per hour in each direction.

    High speed rail is not sustainable – simple.

    • Refreshing to see more light being shed on the real environmental consequences of HSR.

      This is exactly why HS2 + the Y route is the wrong infrastructure investment for Britain.

      We need to be seriously looking at securing our energy, food and water resources instead. Meanwhile HS2 will only exacerbate all those problems.

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