The “carbon neutral roads” con

The controversies surrounding carbon-offsetting are likely to be a big feature of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. Governments are desperately looking for ways to carry on increasing emissions with a ‘business as usual’ approach, whilst pretending this can be ‘balanced out’ elsewhere with offsetting schemes. The same tricks are used by the Government and National Highways to disguise the large increases in carbon emissions caused by their £27.4bn (now £24bn) RIS2 roads programme. 

“Carbon neutral”, “net gain”, “net-zero”, and “offsetting” are slippery words often used to sanitise unsustainable projects and move carbon around the economy to make it ‘disappear’ off the balance sheets. To justify pushing through huge, unsustainable road schemes, the Government and National Highways use “creative accounting” to downplay the environmental damage and large carbon increases. This includes finding ways to ‘compensate’ for the loss of ancient woodland and veteran trees, and valuable land which acts as a carbon sink by a technique commonly known as ‘offsetting’. 

The new CEO of National Highways (NH) has confidently predicted that the next roads programme, RIS3, which will run from 2025-2030, will be “carbon-neutral”. This comes alongside the publication of National Highways (NH) “Net-Zero Highways” plan. NH’s plan is being used to justify large carbon-emitting road schemes currently going through the planning process, and in the Government’s defence to our legal challenges of their roadbuilding obsession. However, closer examination of NH’s Net Zero Highways Plan shows that it is little more than a corporate plan for NH to use renewable electricity in its operations, to switch their vehicle fleet to electric and to encourage suppliers to remove carbon from construction. 

To achieve ‘net-zero’ NH will have to ‘offset’ the residual carbon impacts from the construction process and the loss of soil, trees and other habitats which act as a carbon sink. However, it does nothing to address the millions of tonnes of additional carbon caused by rising traffic levels, induced by more roadbuilding. 

The trouble is that a lot of the proposed ‘offsetting’ is a con (or greenwashing) and can sometimes be often environmentally damaging itself. National Highways boast of “replanting” at “high ratios” to “replace” woodlands and veteran trees. For instance, with the M54-M6 Link Road. National Highways claim they will replant at a ratio of 7:1 to “replace” the mature trees they will destroy. They claim there will be a carbon “net gain” from this, however there is no guarantee that all the saplings will reach maturity or indeed how long they will be managed. 

Freedom of information requests for the controversial A417 Missing Link in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and other roads show that the methodology that allows them to claim a carbon “net gain” assumes the habitat will be mature from the moment of planting! For woodland this is clearly untrue as it can take many years for woodland to even start sequestering carbon at any significant rate. Combine this with the fact that they often ignore the loss of carbon due to soil disturbance and the sequestration of carbon due to the scheme is clearly overstated. 

Another recent example is the latest design consultation for the Lower Thames Crossing, where National Highways announced that a ‘new community woodland’ would be included in the project as part of the mitigation to compensate for the loss of habitat due to construction. However, research by the Thames Crossing Action Group revealed that the replanting is nowhere near the community woodlands being destroyed (so cannot ‘replace’ them), and is a Forestry Commission scheme that would be going ahead anyway! National Highways are also attempting to lower the construction emissions for the scheme by spreading the two million cubic metres of spoil from the 2.6 mile tunnel around the local area (instead of taking it elsewhere) and calling it “landscaping”! The other aspect of this is that increasingly Highways England is having to take even more farmland out of productivity, which is affecting the viability of farms and further undermines the UK’s ability to feed itself.

All of this of course ignores the fact that we need to get to net-zero by 2050 with a 68% reduction in emissions by 2030. So calculating a scheme’s overall carbon sequestration on 60 year timescales is somewhat academic. The construction is creating a huge spike in emissions now or in the very near future which will only start to be substantially offset by sequestration in the mid 2030s. The current method used by National Highways is hiding these issues. 

Overall, there are many questions that National Highways need to answer about the way they are calculating carbon emissions arising from their schemes. However, we must not allow them to forget that carbon is just one negative impact that is created from new road construction. These schemes negatively impact on local communities, nationally important landscapes and international designations such as World Heritage Sites with impunity. Being carbon neutral is not enough, and trust in NH is low when they appear to lie and mislead as they have done on the Historic Railways Estate.



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