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More must be done to cut HS2’s environmental impact – MPs

If the harmful environmental impacts of HS2 are to be minimised better safeguards need to be implemented, the Environmental Audit Committee has stated, including a serious look at cutting the maximum speed of the new trains to reduce emissions. 

In its report – HS2 and the environment – it has suggested that the government should “aim higher” with regards to the objective of no net biodiversity loss. 

The Committee also stated the government has significant work to do to demonstrate that it has put the 'mitigation hierarchy' at the heart of its approach, given the environmental damage expected to ancient woodlands, SSSIs and local wildlife sites. 

A recommendation from the report is that where such biodiversity loss is genuinely unavoidable and cannot be mitigated, compensation measures should be applied to the “fullest extent” possible. 

Also, the speed of HS2 trains has come under scrutiny. Greengauge 21 calculated that while reducing the top operation speed from 360 kph to 300 kph would result in a 19% reduction in energy consumption, this would represent a 7% overall reduction in HS2's emissions. The impact of speed on emissions, they concluded, was “not as great as perhaps people make out or have implied”. 

Following this, the Committee has recommended that the Department of Transport and HS2 Ltd should put forward proposals for an emissions monitoring system to help resolve, and bring transparency to, the likely effect of HS2 on overall transport emissions. 

The report added: “While the impact of lower maximum train speed on reducing emissions is currently not seen as substantial, the legally binding commitment to reduce emissions makes even a small reduction desirable. HS2 Ltd and the Department should therefore examine the scope for requiring a reduced maximum speed for the trains until electricity generation has been sufficiently decarbonised to make that a marginal issue, and publish the calculations that would underpin such a calculation.” 

Joan Walley MP, chair of the Committee, said: “The government needs to show real commitment to dealing with the impact that HS2 will have on our countryside and wildlife. Ancient woodlands and other hard to replace sites of natural value should not be subordinated to crude economic calculations of cost and benefit. 

“It is imperative that an infrastructure project on such a large scale implements proper environmental safeguards and ensures that impacts are minimised.” 

Additionally, the government should establish a process to monitor all aspects of the environmental protections needed for HS2 for the 60 years following the start of construction and operation of the railway, including biodiversity mitigations, compensations and offsets. 

A spokesperson for HS2 Ltd said: “The levels of environmental protection set out in the Environmental Statement are higher than for any other project of such a significant scale. This includes a commitment to plant more than two million trees along the route of Phase One. The committee has acknowledged that the aim of ‘no net biodiversity loss’ is a challenging one. There may be opportunities to achieve a net gain as the project develops and these will be considered fully.” 

However, Richard Houghton, of HS2 Action Alliance, stated: “The 'HS2 and the environment' report makes a number of crystal-clear statements, but primarily that costs will escalate even further beyond the current budget to address the issues of environmental damage and carbon impact. Green report - red faces.” 

The second reading of the HS2 Hybrid Bill, which grants the powers to build and maintain Phase One, is expected after the Easter recess. The Hybrid Bill contains within it the Environmental Statement, which lays out the likely environmental effects of the projects and puts forward measures to avoid, mitigate, or compensate for them. The Environmental Audit Committee examined the environmental aspects of the project, but did not address the overall case for or against the scheme. 

HS2 added: “We will contribute to the government’s response to the Committee once the entire detail of the report has been given due consideration.” 

(Image copyright: HS2 Ltd Birmingham & Fazeley canal viaduct)

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