Briefing by Ian Brown CBE FCILT, Railfuture Policy Director, on the effects of climate change and the need for investment in rail to provide sustainable transport which will help to reduce climate change. Image by iStock.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their 2018 report on October 8th. The headline conclusion is that there is only 12 years left for global warming to be kept within a maximum of 1.5 degrees Centigrade, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risk of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
The warnings are dire for the world and rationally must be heeded and acted upon by the global community. 195 countries supported these conclusions based on 6000 studies across the globe. Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was the world wide response to the previous IPCC report issued in 2016, and remains sceptical of these conclusions, illustrating the huge gap between political imperatives and scientific research. Economic imperatives used to be in conflict with environmental concern. This has changed as the economy of the world is clearly only sustained if environmental issues are addressed, particularly global warning.
This affects Britain in the many ways listed in the report and indeed our railways. Rising sea levels are an issue and we have seen the effects of extreme weather events on our railways at Dawlish, on the Cambrian Coast, the Cumbrian Coast and in Ayrshire. More and more investment will be necessary on sea defence work directly in response to these effects. Low lying areas such as the Thames Estuary and London and the Thames Valley, are increasingly vulnerable to flooding, requiring huge flood alleviation work.
Our Railways are highly vulnerable
Our railway infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to culvert and bridge wash outs. A recent example was the collapse of Lamington Viaduct, where the West Coast Main Line crosses the River Clyde, which suffered “flooding and scour related failure”, now an accepted term for such incidents.
There is no doubt that our railways will require increasing investment, just to keep the system viable.
As well as coastal and river related events, we are also seeing far more frequent high winds and storms closing down railway operations with now quite frequent 50 mph speed restrictions.
None of this is likely to cease. The challenge globally is slowing the speed it will get worse. We can and should, “harden” our infrastructure to mitigate some of its effects.
Can railways be part of the solution?
Railways are not the most significant contributor to the pollution that causes global warning. Although we are talking about not increasing global warming by no more than 1.5 degrees before a tipping point is reached, we must actually reduce carbon emissions by 45%, according to the study, and do so by 2030. There are many carbon capture projects being developed, the most obvious being stopping deforestation.
However transportation is one of the fastest growing contributions to climate change, accounting for about 25% of energy related carbon dioxide emissions. Is the fivefold increase in transport related CO2 by 2030 in Asia, for example, sustainable? There were 65million cars in China in 2010, projected 300million by 2030.
Road users account for 71% of transport CO2 emissions, with railways at 1.8%, aviation 14.3% and a surprising 14.3% for shipping. These are worldwide figures and when looking at railways occupancy is key. Diesel trains, particularly old diesel trains are not much better than cars, neither are buses, in London, for example, with an average occupancy of about 15 people (probably even lower elsewhere in the UK).
Addressing the sustainability of transport is therefore key to addressing climate change. Modal transfer from the car and truck to electric trains is probably the most practical way of making a difference.
This is easier said than done of course, particularly if about 60% of car journeys are under 5 miles and the majority of trucks on our urban streets are making deliveries. Despite this, it needs to happen. We have not talked about health issues here but it needs to happen for these issues too, and that includes the need to reduce particulates from the road/wheel interface, now called the Oslo effect.
Railfuture and its members want to see it happen.
The Railfuture prospectus
Business cases for investment in rail transport are based on criteria set by government essentially in the areas of reducing costs, potential income plus economic factors including regeneration and social inclusion (access to jobs). As all these considerations are dependent on an environment that can sustain them, climate change and its causes must be factored into business cases to invest in our railways.
The most pressing need is in and around our cities and linked conurbations. We need to invest in an all electric regional rail network capable of carrying at least a 20% modal share ie a doubling of capacity, complemented by a light rail network in our large and medium cities, to make any significant impact on carbon emissions.
Time is running out, and many would say, has already run out for many worldwide communities. The starting point is political recognition that we have a problem. Railfuture and its members will use every opportunity to ensure that the case for sustainable rail investment is heard.
Railfuture has a voice and we strongly advocate the case for investment in strategic rail capacity infrastructure upgrades to facilitate modal transfer to rail. This includes track capacity upgrades at key locations, properly project managed electrification of city, urban and regional routes and investment in alternative traction technologies for lightly used lines, where investment in electrification cannot be justified with current traffic levels.
Green GB week
Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040 – New York Times article on UN Climate Change report
United Nations IPCC Climate change report 2018