Skip to content

HS2 can help deliver a low-carbon transport system – but not on its own

  • Comment

Government’s plans for high-speed rail can help meet carbon emissions targets – but only if supported by a set of bold policy initiatives which are not currently in place.

That is the message from a new report commissioned by three prominent environmental organisations and published today.

Government has identified HS2 as an important part of its plans for a low-carbon future. Building HS2 on its own delivers a modest saving in carbon of 0.6 million tonnes of CO2 over sixty years.

Government needs to put in place a wider package of policies to ensure HS2 is as green as possible. Doing so would quadruple the emission savings. But if Government abandons its sustainability policies, HS2 could result in increased emissions.

The report highlights that greater carbon reductions can be achieved by sensible complementary policy measures and by making full use of the capacity that HS2 will release on the existing railway. The crucial factors are whether

  1. The electricity used to power the high speed trains is low carbon and how quickly this decarbonisation is delivered
  2. New development is focused around the stations served by HS2, encouraging use of public transport, walking and cycling
  3. High-speed rail stations are located in city centres rather than on the urban periphery
  4. The additional capacity that is created on the conventional railway is used to its full potential, especially for rail freight which would result in fewer lorries on the roads
  5. Policies are put in place to take passengers out of cars and planes and on to HS2

The report, written by Greengauge 21 for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), RSPB and the Campaign for Better Transport, raises important challenges that Government must respond to if it is to reap the carbon reduction potential of HS2.

Harry Huyton, Head of Climate Change at the RSPB said:

“Climate change threatens to derail our efforts to reverse wildlife declines unless we cut our emissions rapidly. That’s why the RSPB has been involved in this new report, which clearly demonstrates that HS2 could be a vital component of a new green transport system in the UK, but only if it is part of a package of low carbon policies. We are looking for decisive action from Government to put the measures in place that would ensure HS2 is used to its full and, critically, to ensure that the electricity used to power the trains is low carbon.” 

Ralph Smyth, Senior Transport Campaigner, at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said:

“If its stations are put in the right places – in towns and cities needing regeneration – High Speed 2 could be key to securing ‘smart growth’.

“Equally, if its stations are imposed in the wrong places – greenfield sites poorly served by public transport – HS2 would not only fail to reduce carbon emissions it would also have lower economic benefits. This research is another great example how going green is good for growth.”

Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, Campaign for Better Transport said:

“HS2 will release capacity on existing rail lines – particularly the West Coast Main Line. Using this for freight currently carried on road could have big carbon saving potential. But it won’t happen unless Government signals now that it will make strategic investments in the freight potential of the existing network.”

Jim Steer, Director of Greengauge 21 and co-author of the report said:

“The report offers thorough research into HS2’s potential effect on carbon emissions. What it shows is that the first phase of HS2 will lead to a modest reduction in carbon while adding transport capacity, potentially meeting both sustainability and economic growth aims.

“The beneficial carbon effect, modest in the first phase, is increased fourfold by the planned extension of HS2 further north. And if Government responds positively to the challenges identified, then these carbon benefits can be magnified for both phases.”

See here for further information on the report and to download a copy.



The report was commissioned by:

  • The RSPB: the UK charity working to secure a healthy environment for birds and all wildlife, helping to create a better world for everyone.
  • The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE): fights for a better future for the English countryside. We work locally and nationally to protect, shape and enhance a beautiful, thriving countryside for everyone to value and enjoy.
  • Campaign for Better Transport: the UK’s leading authority on sustainable transport. We champion transport solutions that improve people’s lives and reduce environmental damage.

The research was sponsored by Siemens and SYSTRA.