It seems that we’re not convinced

In this blog I will look at what respondents to Question 6 of the public consultation on HS2 said about the estimates of carbon emissions in the Appraisal of Sustainability (AoS), as reported in High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future Consultation Summary Report (here).

In paragraphs 6.3.12 to 6.3.20 on pages120 to 122 of that report, Dialogue by Design informs us that a mere 200 respondents “expect a high speed rail network will reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. It appears that there were 4,824 less gullible folk who ventured the opinion that “national high speed rail network will not contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change”. In case it has passed your notice, that’s more than a twenty to one ratio doubting the carbon emission credentials of HS2.

Some clues as to why the Government has failed to convince these doubters are also in the report. For example, 2,527 commented about the energy consumption of high speed rail (presumably saying that it was high) and 726 “mention the fuel source for the high speed rail network, with many concerned that it will not be low carbon”.

The claims made by the Government for modal shift from air and road are also doubted by the majority commenting on this issue. The report tells us that 1,895 respondents “think that the proposed high speed rail network will not reduce air travel”, with only 134 accepting that one way in which HS2 “would reduce greenhouse gas emissions is by shifting a portion of domestic and short-haul flights onto rail” (a fourteen to one ratio in favour of the doubters). The argument for modal shift from road fairs better with 453 sceptics against 169 “believing this could be achieved”, but that still more than two and a half to one.

So how does HS2 Ltd react to this vote of no confidence? The answer to this question may be found in Chapter 4 of the document Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability (here). The surprise here is that HS2 Ltd comes as close as we are ever likely to see to conceding that the doubters may have a point. Paragraph 4.1.2 on page 14 begins with the briefest of concessions:

“We recognise a number of the concerns raised during consultation regarding the carbon calculations.”

However, that is about it, because there then follows much in the way of self-justification. That I can just about cope with, but by the time we reach paragraph 4.1.4, self-justification appears to have given way to misrepresentation:

“This approach to assessment provides a range of possible outcomes and we factored all of these into our AoS assessments. The published appraisal therefore presents both best and worst-case scenarios in acknowledgement of these known uncertainties.”

Now I’m sorry HS2 Ltd, but that just isn’t true. It may have been the aspiration, but it certainly was not achieved. The evidence for this may be found in Appendix 2 to the AoS (here). Take for example the effects of modal shift from air travel, which are discussed in paragraph 2.1.3 on page 3 of Appendix 2, as follows:

“The worst case scenario is that HS2 would result in freed up landing and take-off slots which are then used up to meet demand for international flights, resulting in a net increase in carbon emissions. The magnitude of this potential net increase in emissions has not been quantified at this time as further analysis is required to determine the additional carbon emissions associated with projected international travel demand.”

Precisely what “has not been quantified at this time” means is spelt out in note 2 to Table 4 on page 19 of Appendix 2, thus:

“The upper range of net changes in air travel is unknown as the international destination of flights using take-off slots freed up by HS2 diverting domestic flights is not known at this stage. As an illustration, flights from London to either New York or Shanghai would be one order of magnitude greater than typical UK domestic flights. The value of the upper range is expected to be large and positive resulting in a net increase in carbon emissions and aggregated carbon costs from HS2.”

So what value has been “factored in” for this “large and positive” upper range? The answer, as can be seen from Table 2, is zero.

This is not the only example of positive carbon outputs being disregarded in the AoS carbon calculations as being too hard to do. So I’m sorry, but I think that HS2 Ltd is wrong to make the claim that it “factored all of these into our AoS assessments”.

So what can HS2 Ltd offer us? The answer, according to paragraph 4.1.8 on page 16 of Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability is jam tomorrow:

“Our conclusion therefore is that, in line with a number of consultation responses, carbon is an issue that we would need to address and we would continue to do this as part of the more detailed assessments that would be made in the next stage of the project, should the scheme proceed. At this stage our approach is based on current guidance and practice and is appropriate for the AoS.”

I disagree strongly with that final sentence. Since the Government has characterised HS2 as being “broadly carbon neutral”, based upon the mid-range of the calculations presented in the AoS, it seems to me that, even at this stage, it is important that those calculations are a reasonable attempt at accuracy and do not miss out potentially significant carbon emission contributions.

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