Are you sure?

How Green is my Puszta? Statistics, Damned Statistics and Hungary’s Environmental Claims

Climate change, off-setting your carbon footprint, planting trees; you just can’t be green enough these days.

And here’s where Hungary has some news it just can’t wait to tell the world. Well, actually, it has waited quite some time, but now the powers at be have taken up the cause, they can’t wait to tell you.

The country is among the top 10 EU member states when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to European Union statistics, no less.

Minister of State for Energy Affairs and Climate Policy Péter Kaderják feels there are huge misconceptions out there regarding the country’s green credentials.

“Sometimes we get the feeling that Hungary’s achievements are not fully understood. Indeed, sometimes we hear that nobody is doing anything in Hungary for climate protection. We definitely do not share this view,” he told a press briefing last month.

Kaderják, as reported in the last issue of the Budapest Business Journal (see Hungary Plans Massive Investment in Solar Generation), cites the EU’s 2019 report on greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory, which reveals Hungary has cut its GHG emissions by 32% between 1990-2017. This compares to an EU average of just 23.5% over the same period.

“Within the community we have member states that could not reduce even a tonne, not a percentage, not even a tonne of emissions in the last 30 years,” Kaderják said, pointing the finger at Austria, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Compared to these countries, Hungary’s performance “is not bad”, he said. “We have the ninth best performance, together with Denmark, in reducing GHG levels compared to 1990.”

A perusal of the report verifies these claims. Hungary, then, is surely right to demand some greenie points when negotiating in Brussels?

Poor Performers

Except another recent EU energy report (Eurostat, Renewable Energy Statistics) labels Hungary, along with Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta, as one of the poorest performers in terms of “green” electricity production in the Union.

Hungary in 2018 had a mere 8.3% share of electricity generated from renewable sources; that’s barely a quarter of the EU average of 32.2%.

This miserable performance is hardly surprising when you consider that, almost alone in Europe, Hungary has failed to install a single wind turbine in the last decade.

Of course, the two figures are measuring different metrics, but the disconnect must leave the average citizen perplexed. Where does Hungary really stand in its “greening” claims? And can it honestly pretend to shine against Austria, a country with a long environmentalist tradition, where campaigners forced the closure of its sole nuclear power station in 1978 before the reactor could split a single atom?

The answer to the latter is easy: While Austria does indeed produce more GHG today than in 1990, overall Hungary cannot hold a candle to its Alpine neighbor. In 2018, utilizing its hydro, wind and solar potential, Austria generated a massive 73.1% of its electricity from renewables, almost nine times the Hungarian figure.

As to the overall environmental picture, clarification lies in the exact choice of statistics and, crucially, the starting date. Hungary, along with all its former Eastern Bloc allies, flatters to deceive when measuring GHG emissions from a base year of 1990. This was the very year when much heavy, highly inefficient industry dating from communist times suddenly met the real world, and real oil prices.

A close study of the EU inventory reveals Hungary cut its GHG emissions from 94 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 64 million tonnes by 2017. The difference, 30 million tonnes, equates to that impressive 32% reduction cited by Kaderják. But of this, 19 million tonnes, almost two-thirds of the total, was achieved by 1995, within just five years of the post-communist transition, when vast swaths of energy guzzling industry closed down.

Let’s not kid ourselves, nor be kidded: Hungary certainly has become less polluting and more climate friendly in the past three decades, but that is primarily from reacting to economic forces, not from any principled rush to adopt green energy policies.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu