Péter Olajos, the new deputy state secretary at Hungary's National Economy Ministry responsible for climate policy, has a challenging task. He has to convince Hungarians, who are not very environmentally conscious, that building a sustainable economy is a must – and fast.
What is your agenda as a deputy state secretary?
My field of activity is concentrated on climate policy and energy policy. In climate policy we are responsible for international negotiations, to make a road map to de-carbonizing the whole country and to build up a low-carbon society and a low-carbon economy.
In the field of energy policy we are responsible for strategy building. So all the regulations and detailed programs are done by another, the National Development Ministry.
What are your top priorities?
First of all, unfortunately the past Hungarian governments did not pay enough attention to the planning phase, so there were no concrete plans and strategies concerning climate and energy policies and renewable energy. But due to the fact that the European Commission and the European Union last year decided on an energy package we are obliged to create these strategies and plans. So our department is dealing with creating these strategies and action plans to give incentives to the market, to the players, to the stakeholders. We want to show what the state wants in the future. Without plans it is difficult to determine how we want to cooperate with those involved. This is the first priority, to have a clear picture of what we really want to do, what the government wants to do.
The second important element is to boost the green economy. There are different factors, First, renewable energy, which is close to my heart. Hungary has very good resources for renewable energies that we have unfortunately not used efficiently in the past. That’s the reason Hungary is in the last three countries considering the use of renewable energy in their energy portfolios. So we would like to use renewable energy much more and for this reason we are very much concentrated on changing three things.
First, to have a different legal environment. That’s one of the causes investors are not coming to Hungary because our legal system is very complicated right now. We have more than 120 legal acts dealing with the renewable energy sector. That’s a lot, too much.
The second, our licensing system is very complicated so to establish for instance a biomass power plant, you need 52 licenses. Compared with Germany where you only need one, is too much. We would like to change this administration system and achieve deregulation and demolish the legal barriers existing in this field.
The third problem is that we have a very complicated system to provide grid access. If someone is producing electricity they have to have access to the “pipelines”, which is a huge problem. So we want to make this system as simple as possible to help investors.
The reason why we are doing it is that if we put together all the money which is available in the European budget for this purpose and we put together those moneys available in the national budget, these two elements only add up 20% of the amount which is needed to reach the minimum 13% by 2020. It means, 80% we have to find somewhere in the free market. The money is there, it’s clear that there is plenty of it. But to be attractive and invite this money into the country and to be competitive in this region compared with Slovakia or Romania, we need to have deregulation, we have to change the elements previously mentioned.
Of course the cheapest and most interesting cost –efficient activity is to concentrate on energy-efficiency. That’s a low-hanging fruit. We would like to run two flagship programs. One is concentrated on block houses. You might now that in Hungary we have 500,000 flats, with 2 million people living in block houses, this Soviet type of housing. They have very bad insulation systems, or no insulation system at all. We would like to start a massive program to insulate these houses and to reach 80% energy efficiency on them. We have one test building which was delivered in Dunaújváros four or five years ago, the so-called Solanova house. In cooperation with the Budapest University of Technology who were partners, they reached this 80%. So it’s technically possible. Of course the question is how we should collect money for such purposes and how we should create the financial background for these projects. It’s easy to make it technically but very difficult to collect the money needed for running this program.
Is that what it’s all about, having enough money to do it?
Well, the environment is like a war. You need money, money and money. So of course, technically everything is possible. When I was born (1968) we as astronauts were on the moon. Everything is possible, but it needs a lot of money. And this is also part of the government’s job to create the environment to invite this kind of money onto the country.
There has always been money for projects like upgrading windows and doors, installing individual energy meters for homes or better insulation. Still there are not that many people taking advantage of this option.
In the past it was small money. If you take into account that last year and the year before that it was only one or two billion forints, you see that the money is very small when weighed against the problem. So when we are talking about ten thousands of flats renovated a year it is a hundred times bigger investment. That is the reason the government wants to establish the green bank because it is such a huge amount of money that we are talking about.
Can you tell us more about the green bank, how it would look like, how it would work?
It’s not that clear yet. There is thinking on government levels that it could belong to the Hungarian development bank MFB because there are good examples in western Europe. The first time when I met the idea of the green bank it was under the Antall government 20 years ago. Each government had tries, but nobody established a green bank. I think this is a point when there is no time to delay anymore.
Another pillar is government buildings and local government buildings. We have 100,000 around the country. Only in the central government we have 600 buildings. You can probably see that the windows here [his office] are quite far from being energy efficient.
So when the central government is talking about smaller administration and more efficient government it also means decreasing energy bills. In addition, this kind of renovation when we are talking about the central government is 100% financed by the EU. So I don’t know why they didn’t deal with this in the past. The fact is we can finance it from the EU budget. As I already said, this is a low-hanging fruit, and we really want to harvest it.
We have prepared a few statements. Please state if you agree or no.
Selective waste collection should be mandatory.
Yes, absolutely. I guess there are countries where you could do it without making it mandatory, but in Hungary the philosophy of the society requires it.
Do you think this is an effective method, because many say that selective waste collection doesn’t work, and the things people throw in there eventually end up in landfills anyway?
The biggest question for the state is that if the whole process isn’t transparent and the people handling the question know that waste is going to landfills and is not managed properly, than the whole system will collapse. The state has to prove that the whole process is clear and that at the end of selective waste collection there is selective use of the materials. No doubt, we had very bad experiences in the past, and therefore society is very skeptical. We have to destroy this skepticism and show a real transparent system. NGOs can help us a lot.
What do you think about biodegradable plastics?
I like them. I’m a chemist so I’m very much in favor of the technology, and I guess that these biodegradable materials are very useful, so I can support it very much.
And can you? I mean do you have that power as a deputy state secretary?
Not now. As a member of the governing board of Hungary I can support it. But this is not my portfolio.
All plastic bags should cost money.
Yes. It’s also a philosophy, a case of principle. The people have to understand and feel that yes, every material we are using is somehow polluting the environment and somebody has to pay for that.
There is a need for a sustainability ministry.
Yes, absolutely, I supported that many times. There are different approaches in Europe. In some countries they established sustainable development ministries because the whole issue is very complex and traditional environment ministries are not enough to cover all the fields.
The second solution that the Hungarian government is promoting is not to have a sustainability ministry but all the ministries have departments dealing with sustainability. It also shows that everybody, all government bodies are involved in this process. It was very bad in the past when government offices could say okay, this is a sustainability issue, so it belongs to the environment ministry and I have no business with this.
Right now, all members of the government have to understand that all aspects of sustainability are part of all activities, even in the military or human resources, education etc.
Carbon dioxide should be sunk into the ground.
You mean CCS projects. I have not been a friend of the projects. I was against it in the European Parliament as well. I think that this is a very difficult technology, it’s not ready right now. We have much cheaper carbon dioxide capturing technologies, like forests. If I have to decide on the technology in the matter I’d say not CCS, but let’s fix carbon dioxide with forests.
We need more wind power.
Absolutely. Wind power technology is developing extremely fast. In the last 20 years the capacity has increased 20-fold. The windmills are ten times bigger so the whole wind power and generation is one of the most innovative parts of the renewable energy sector. And in addition I like the vision of the windmills.
Does Hungary have a wind map?
Well, it’s developing, because all those who want forecast for wind are required to present a wind-measuring plan. And over the past two years there were intense efforts to create a wind map. It’s far from perfect because it was measured in different heights. But I think we have to develop this map further for many reasons.
For instance we have to know (if the wind is blowing) what kind of wind we will have at 40 meters but if we want to establish a 150-meter high windmill, the wind situation is totally different over there.
Only passive houses should be built in Hungary by 2020.
Yes, according to EU law from 2018, all new government buildings have to be passive. And while we are talking about energy poverty in Hungary, one of the causes of this poverty is the cost of the energy. To build up passive houses can help to escape this energy poverty situation. I can support it very much and I will be more than happy if we have regulation or a law which obliges society to build only passive houses.
Do you see that as a reality?
Absolutely, technically it’s possible.
No government support should be given to coal power plants.
I don’t support any government money being given to support fossil energy production, that’s the basis. I think one of the problems is that the market is not working perfectly in Hungary, because there are so many government actions like grants and taxes that the picture is so disturbed that everyone is confused. I prefer those philosophies when the market decides between the technologies.
There were plans to build a government district. State-of-the art construction technology with low emission buildings. Why not have one now?
I don’t know what the new government wants to do in this field. Now we are having an investigation concerning what the real energy consumption in the government is. Surprising or not, nobody knows how much government buildings consume. As responsible people in the government first we conduct this investigation and we try to make analyses of all the buildings. What kind of money you need to make these buildings more energy efficient and it will create a clear picture for us about how much this really costs and benefit for the Hungarian taxpayer.
Surprisingly, when this government district idea came up there was never any background assessment of energy costs and the future of energy regulation. We have to do our investigations which will help decision makers to rethink the whole concept. You have to know that the government wants to decrease the number of administrators. Of course if we have too many buildings with few people in them, we have to rethink what we want to do with the unused buildings and that we should move somewhere. It’s not propaganda, it is a decision that has to be wise and has to be based on facts. If the government is really committed to making the whole administration cheaper, rethinking this is of course one of the elements.
More power to the atom.
In the last Parliament they decided in total agreement to continue the nuclear power program in Hungary. You have to know that in Hungary we enjoy the biggest support for nuclear energy. Society is very positive in this respect. There is political support, all parties support it and there is public support. And of course nuclear power has helped us de-carbonize the economy to have less CO2 emissions and become energy independent. That’s the reason it has a huge renaissance right now in Europe and the United States as well.
Perhaps the biggest problem in creating a greener economy in Hungary is that the public is not interested.
I don’t think so. I guess society is getting more and more interested in the subject. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to be green, to live a green life in Hungary. For instance, we just had a baby with my wife, and to find eco-diapers is extremely difficult. There is only one shop where you can buy it. So the whole market is very underdeveloped. Of course you can say that it is also a government job to boost the whole green economy. I just finished a book a couple of months ago entitled Green Conservatism and I try to lay down the fundaments of this whole economy and of course the society is one of the keys to change the way how people think.
How would you convince an ordinary person to go green? Do you tell them that they’re killing the planet or do you try to make rational arguments laying out the benefits of investing into greener things?
This is also a profession, to convince the people. What this expert [the author of the book] says is that there are different target groups. There are educated people who have experience of green thinkers and they can be convinced. But there are people who know nothing about this story and they concentrate just on the financial parts of the question. To reach those target groups we have to use different tools and different assets. To understand the Hungarian society, we have to pay more attention to the financial part. If they believe they can save money they will be much greener.
How do you see Hungarian agriculture becoming greener?
Thank god it is also a consensus in Hungarian society to keep us as far away as possible from GMOs. To be GMO free country is one of the very important elements of the Hungarian agricultural strategy. We have to turn towards more labor intensive production. We don’t have to compete with the Untied State or Australia to have a million hectares of monoculture fields because it is not wise. Instead we should have much-more labor-intensive products, which means turning towards bio products. The bio market is growing in Hungary but really, it is very small, it represents only 2% of Hungarian agricultural production. And of this 2% we export 95% to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This shows that these are good products, you can sell it at a high price, but it is still a very small part of Hungarian agricultural production.
It also needs lot of working power. This is also a key goal for the government to establish one million new jobs. The agricultural sector is one of the biggest players for this. I guess half million we can find in the agricultural sector. So we have to be more sustainable in this field. First, say no to GMOs and have more bio products. Also we have to convince people to buy local products and not buy apples from north Africa for instance. This consumer society has developed in a very bad direction in the last 10 years. You can find millions of products in the shops but very few which are really local. Meanwhile local producers are going bankrupt because they can’t sell their products. We have to rethink the whole production and find out how we can bring more local goods to the shops and not import food from far away with huge CO2 footprints.
How can you make Hungarian farmers more competitive? They obviously have to transport the bio goods you mentioned abroad because there is no market for it at home.
If I knew the proper answer to this I would be minister of agriculture. It’s a difficult and complex issue. There is no single solution. If there was, somebody would already have done it.
Do you know of any government plans to pump much more money into organic farming?
Yes, according to my knowledge the Rural Development Ministry is dealing with this issue and the new state secretary has long been dealing with the story.
How did you come to work today?
By car. I was very shocked when I saw the ministry’s car fleet. It’s very old and very inefficient. In half a year we will have the EU presidency with plans like to make it a low-carbon presidency. This means we have to renew the car fleet in the government sector. I would be very happy to have hybrids or electric cars or to see a bicycle park which I enjoyed in the EP in Brussels for using between the buildings. So there is a lot to do in this field as well.
Why did you choose sustainability as your focus as a politician?
I was educated as chemical and environmental engineer so when I was involved in politics it was a logical step to go in a direction close to my profession and was absolutely empty at the time. No one (or very few) was dealing with suitability ten years ago. I was one of the first pioneers on this field and there are unfortunately still not too many others.
How did life in Brussels change you?
Very much. First in my attitude and my way of thinking. The biggest difference and change for me was that in Brussels politicians know that the decision making process should be in cooperation with the stakeholders. There are hundreds of differ meetings and of course politicians are not perfect to know all the details. Of course, the devil lies in the details. Only the actual firms and the NGOs are the ones who deal with the numbers every day and have experience on the field. Politicians’ duty is to listen to all the people to collect the information and to find the interest for Hungary and Europe. This is much more about to create a consensus. In Hungary politicians’ work is traditional decision-making. It is like they can walk on water and they can decided because they know everything. In Brussels I find that the most successful politicians know how this cooperation and consensus-making works.
What is the most difficult part of becoming part of the government machine? You have been in various posts during your career but this is the first time you are in a position to get these things done.
I feel myself as a man out of the box. I have lots of plans and projects in my mind. Before, I could work at my speed, but now this is a huge machine and it takes a lot of time to make decisions. I expected this but I was still surprised how slow things go because it is a huge machine.
Will you miss the freedom of throwing fish?
Yes, yes. This part of the political life is very interesting. It is also a job to plan a perfect diplomacy and to have broad international relations. We have to feel that we are part of the European Union, we need broad connections to have lots of friends and alliances in different countries and governments to help each other and play as a real member state. Hungary is very far from this.. We are not enough good participating in the EU decision-making process yet.
Why do you think this is?
It’s a tradition. It was a very long time ago when Hungary was in the main flow of European decision making process, Maybe Mathias Rex was the last one to play a mainstream European role. Under the socialist regime most of our decisions were given, we just followed the guidelines. Now this European role is very different and very new for us even though we’ve been members for six years. We have to learn that we are not secondary members, we are equal with everybody and we have to really be a part of the whole process and be proactive not just listen to the end products. We need to initiate projects. This is still provincial way how Hungary is thinking.
Does this mean you are worried about the EU presidency?
Yes I am. This is a big challenge for the Hungarian administration. Frankly speaking the Hungarian administration is not in a situation right now to do a perfect job. But we have a half year and this half year will be very challenging for the new Hungarian government. I’ve been in Brussels many years and saw how this proficiency really works. So we have to make much more in this field to reach this minimum level that is satisfactory and at least the level of the Slovenian presidency. This is a big challenge no doubt.
If you would have to give your new baby some piece of wisdom, what would it be?
I believe very much, which is related to my profession, that climate change is the biggest issue in the XXIst century. When she becomes 20 years old, many things will already be decided and I hope that in the next 20 years, we politicians dealing with this climate matter can make good decisions and make international-level steps towards saving this planet and not leaving our sons and daughter a spoiled Earth which is not perfect for human life. I believe very much and I hope we will reach an international compromise to save the planet. I really believe this. (MTD, GR)