In its simplest form, net zero wields wide support, but with more contention on the specifics of how to reach it, overcoming non-cooperation and division is vital

Collaboration will be key in reaching net zero; despite widely split opinions on HS2 and its impact on the climate, its development and compromise could be an example to all who disagree on the best way to reach net zero.
In its simplest form, net zero wields wide support, but with more contention on the specifics of how to reach it, overcoming non-cooperation and division is vital

United desire to achieve net zero goals

Despite two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting cost-of-living crisis, public awareness and concern about climate change is at its highest-ever levels. Regardless of the difficult circumstances brought on by the current energy crisis, there also seems to be a strong political consensus supporting net zero as a goal. The success and expense of combating climate change depend on maintaining a broad coalition of support beyond just the political classes. Government mandate or public-sector activity cannot produce the net-zero transition alone. Rapid innovation and the mobilisation of enormous sums of money are required for net zero, and this is where the private sector must be engaged to ensure delivery on the scale required.[i] 90% of people were aware of the idea of Net Zero as of the autumn of 2022. 39% of respondents indicated they understood either a little or practically anything about Net Zero, while 50% of respondents said they knew at least a fair little about it. Since the increases in Winter 2021, awareness of and knowledge of Net Zero have remained largely stable, but in comparison to Summer 2022, the percentage of people who know a lot about Net Zero has increased slightly to 16% in Autumn 2022 (from 14%) despite overall awareness remaining at a similar level.[ii] The worry over climate change and support for the net zero 2050 goal, in theory, according to net zero's detractors, does not equate to support for environmentally conscious policies in actuality. Social research has disproven this; although support for certain programmes is more divided, green measures are generally well-supported.[iii] Onward created a Net Zero Index, which displays net support for each tested proposal. It shows that the majority of voters in 2019 want to see their political party take greater climate action. Contention still exists, though, the replacement of gas boilers, the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, and the alteration of agricultural practices and rural landscapes to reduce emissions remain controversial to a degree but still enjoy widespread support.[iv] This demonstrates that despite overwhelming support for net zero in its simplest form, at more granular levels, disagreement exists on how to achieve it.

There is perhaps no project that better typifies this kind of disagreement than HS2. Whilst the project has separate controversies related to its cost or efficacy, there is also a conversation about its impact on the climate.

HS2: net zero friend or foe?

The UK Government stated in January 2009 that a new firm, HS2 Ltd., would investigate the possibility of building a new high-speed rail link between London and the West Midlands. One of the main points made by its supporters is that high-speed rail might provide a progressive, sustainable way to control the costs associated with air and land travel for both the economy and the environment.[v]

Source: HS2

According to the project's website, 1.2 million fewer miles will be driven in cars each day once HS2 is fully functional. According to HS2's own estimations, the project can reduce carbon emissions by 8g per passenger per km. In contrast, a car would produce 67g of emissions over the same trip, while a plane would produce 170g. In fact, HS2 projects that car travel will reduce carbon emissions by more than 40,000 tonnes yearly, saving almost 18 million litres of petrol in the process.[vi] The pursuit of decarbonising surface transport is a worthy one; the CCC’s 6th carbon budget identifies it as a priority, with 22% of the UK’s carbon emissions coming as a result of surface transport. HS2 represents an engineered solution to the climate crisis, but on the opposite side of the debate, critics suggest that its impact on natural solutions to the climate crisis cannot be overlooked.

In the newest study, which was reported in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence, 1000 trees in Wytham Wood were laser-scanned to create a map that was then used to create a model. This provided a measurement of each tree's volume, which scientists used to determine how much carbon was stored in the trunk and branches of each tree. It demonstrated that an area of UK forest weighs roughly twice as much as predicted by earlier models.  According to Prof. Mat Disney from UCL, "When you know the density of the wood, you can convert volume into mass," "About half of that mass will be carbon, half is water." The area weighed by scientists provides an accurate assessment of the carbon worth of forests throughout the UK since Wytham Wood, one of the most scientifically investigated woods in the world, is typical of the deciduous woodland found in the UK.[vii] This is important in the context of HS2 as the woodland trust reports that the project threatens 108 ancient woodlands. However, this estimate is being recalculated due to amendments to phase 1 and the eastern leg.[viii]

Source: Woodland Trust

Both the woodland trust and HS2 justify themselves in their favoured approaches to pursuing net zero, but despite both sharing this same goal, the two approaches contradict one another. This likely extends to the opinions of the wider public, depending on their perspective on HS2.

The HS2 debate also demonstrates how compromise may taste sweeter for all involved when they each seek the same end result. For example, advocacy from the woodland trust meant that HS2’s route was slightly amended in places to save acres of ancient woodland.[ix] Perhaps this example is a lesson for all those involved in debates on the best way to achieve net zero, that entrenchment in one perspective is not an effective way to achieve change. Allowing yourself to be led by facts alone and accepting that unity in a goal is more important than ideological purity.


[i] Tony Blair Institute for Global Change- Temperatures Rising? Avoiding Division on Net Zero

[ii] BEIS- BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Net Zero and Climate Change

Autumn 2022, UK

[iii] Institute for Public Policy Research- As some politicians seek to divide on climate change, the public remain united

[iv] Onward- Thin Ice? Understanding voters’ support for net zero.

[v] ARUP- Route engineering design and assessment of route options.

[vi] HS2- Carbon – zero carbon rail travel for a cleaner, greener future

[vii] BBC- UK's old trees critical to climate change fight

[viii] Woodland Trust- HS2 rail link

[ix] Ibid


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