Maya Zealey | Fife, Scotland
The UK government often boasts of its ambition in aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The building of a new, high-speed train (HS2) is claimed to be a sustainable development project, their attempt to make environmentally friendly travel across the country easier and more affordable. This is a project seemingly in line with Sustainable Development Goals; many of them encourage countries to be more environmentally friendly at a time when our planet is under serious threat from climate change.
However, the realities behind this façade are much less inspiring and HS2 Rebellion is a movement holding the government to account. UN Sustainable Development Goal 15.5 asks countries to “take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species.” HS2 will quite literally have the opposite effect.
HS2 Rebellion argues that building this railway will be “the UK’s most environmentally destructive project.” It is set to destroy 5 wildlife refuges and 33 sites of special scientific interest that should be protected by UK law, along with 693 local wildlife sites, 21 local nature reserves, 18 Wildlife Trust nature reserves, and 108 ancient woodlands. Britain’s forest, woodlands, and other green spaces have been under threat for years and their protection is vital. Not only do they play a key role in the functioning of ecosystems that we rely on for food, but they crucially help us all to breathe. Not only will HS2 destroy trees but could cause further endangerment and possible extinction to the barn owl, white-clawed crayfish, willow tit, lizard orchid, and dingy skipper.
The spirit of the UN Goals on the environment is to move towards a more sustainable future, which in the UK means dramatically cutting our carbon emissions from transport. In theory, building better public transport is important for this to become a reality. However, HS2 Rebellion brings to light reports that the railway will never be carbon neutral. Its construction is set to release the equivalent of up to 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Even if the railway could cut total carbon emissions when it is built, which is likely to be by 2040, it will not be by enough to offset construction. Furthermore, the emissions released in the process will still be in the atmosphere, which has a cumulating effect especially when thousands of trees have been cut down. Whatever way you look at it, this project is bad for the environment.
While HS2 Rebellion does not exclusively pursue any individual sustainable development goal, the spirit of the goals is to encourage governments across the world to do better, and above all else, that is what HS2 Rebellion is doing.
This project was an attempt to greenwash the actions of the UK government, and HS2 Rebellion is fighting to make sure they are held accountable. HS2 is calling for greater democratization on ventures that harm the climate so that future “infrastructure projects to be decided by citizens assemblies, ensuring they all meet the Paris climate agreement, are science-led and advised by leading independent NGO’s.”
This at best half-hearted attempt by the UK government to work towards a more sustainable future was pathetic. In the face of a looming climate emergency, the shallow responses and general inaction of governments can make the problem feel insurmountable. However, a movement like HS2 Rebellion should remind us all that public will can be an impressive force. Activist Talia Woodin (@taltakingpics on Instagram) recently posted that it was difficult not to feel like resisting the system was “completely futile.” However, with the movement growing, petitions taking off, and journalists taking notice “no one can say there’s no progress.” Talia and others have been living at camps on sites that are due to be destroyed for the project, away from their homes and their families, to try and stop the devastation or at least document it. The loss Britain has already endured from this project is sad, and these activists are making difficult sacrifices, but it is impossible not to be inspired by this movement.
At its heart, HS2 Rebellion is a movement that inspires hope. Hope that our land can be protected, even if we must fight for it. Hope that our government will help protect our environment, even if it takes a lot of public pressure for them to do so. Hope that one day the Sustainable Development Goals will be more than slogans and will become actions of the government.