HS2 pledges to use only zero-carbon electricity, but environmental groups call greenwashing

Image: HS2 Ltd

HS2 Ltd, the company set up by the Government to deliver the major rail project, has today (11 January) released a plan outlining how the scheme will meet its 2035 net-zero goal with the minimal use of offsetting. Where offsetting is used, the plan states that a mix of nature-based and tech-based solutions will be considered.

To reduce emissions in the first instance, the plan details commitments to deliver a trail diesel-free construction site in 2022, replacing diesel in generators with HVO. Then, by 2029, all sites will be diesel-free.

There are also commitments to halve the emissions associated with the steel and concrete used for infrastructure by 2030, against 2021 levels. HS2 Ltd has stated that it will work with innovators developing construction methods that are more material-efficient, as well as manufacturers using alternative fuels and renewable energy, and those developing innovative low-carbon materials. Innovations include reinforced 3D-printed concrete and using end-of-life wind turbines for reinforcing concrete.

In terms of the operation of the rail line, the overarching commitment is to only use zero-carbon electricity from day one. This will mean using entirely renewable and nuclear-generated electricity – either directly, through self-generation and Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), or through tariffs backed with guarantee-of-origin certificates.

Day one of operations was originally meant to be in the latter half of 2026. However, this is now expected between 2029 and 2033, with the project having been plagued by delays that have resulted in the scrapping of the eastern leg to Leeds. The second phase of the link will then open between 2035 and 2040.

HS2’s chief executive Mark Thurston said the new plans published today “demonstrate the significant role HS2 will play in addressing climate change, by providing a low-carbon, long-distance transport solution and leading the construction sector to drive down emissions”.

Several green groups remain sceptical. There has been much criticism of HS2 for its impacts on woodlands and nature, as well as the fact that the Department for Transport’s own data revealed that 95% of HS2 passengers will likely have used public transport even without the link.

As such, today’s announcement has received a lukewarm reception. Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs pointed to the fact that the UK Government has committed to a 100% clean electricity grid by 2035 and a phase-out of all diesel trains by 2040. In other words, Childs thinks HS2 is overstating how the project will lead the rest of the sector on clean energy procurement.

Childs added: “HS2 is understandably keen to buff up its green credentials, but when the project includes the damage and destruction of ancient woodlands, this is a difficult thing to do.”

Similarly, the Wildlife Trusts’ director of climate action Kathryn Brown said: “It’s good to hear positive ambitions for HS2, because, so far, the construction has caused only damage and destruction of nature.

“Unfortunately, HS2 Ltd has a track record of failing to live up to its promises. After years of asking, we’re still waiting to see how they plan to make up for destroying irreplaceable wildlife habitats and there is little indication the company is taking our concerns seriously.

“Promising low-carbon travel is vital, but not if that comes at the expense of the natural world. We can’t build our way out of the climate crisis – and the Government has made it clear that restoring nature and natural processes is needed at an unprecedented scale. When it comes to the nature emergency, so far HS2 has only made things worse.”

The UK Government last June committed that all large infrastructure projects going forward will need to have a net-positive impact on nature. However, calculations towards this requirement will exclude ancient woodland, in recognition of the fact that it cannot be replaced. The Wildlife Trusts believe that HS2 will damage or destroy 108 ancient woodlands.

Sarah George

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