The situation is far more alarming than the thermometer currently suggests, but it’s not hopeless, says Csaba Kőrösi, Head of the Directorate for Environmental Sustainability founded by President Áder. Hungary Today asked Hungary’s former UN ambassador about environmental and climate protection, sustainability, Hungary’s features and Paks II.
President Trump recently suggested that climate change does not exist. Is climate change an opinion or fact?
Aside from a few media outlets, the factuality of climate change is no longer a topic of debate. Instead, the debate is over to what extent it is human-caused. But around 95% of scientists agree that it is caused by humans, and this was supported by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) evaluation as well. What does this 95% consensus mean? Magellan’s sailing voyage around the world took place 30 years after Columbus’ trip, but debates continued after this, for another 20 years, over whether the earth is flat or not.
And actually, if we were only looking at the natural trends along geological and environmental factors, the earth should actually be cooling.
Are the world’s leaders putting the necessary emphasis on the issue of climate change?
I believe that the science-backed knowledge isn’t lacking—and this enables us to see where humanity is now and where it is heading. Rather, there is division among interests. After all, climate change is influencing individual countries to varying degrees. So it differs by nation how much one country is willing to undergo, what social effects they foresee, and how much they expect from others when it comes to taking action. These factors influence leaders’ thinking much more than a lack of knowledge.
Can climate change intensify social problems already in existence– for example migration? Is it a legitimate concern that people may want to migrate because of climate-change-caused environmental destruction?
I think these two questions must be separated. It is factual that climate change intensifies environmental, already existing threats to society. Along these lines, and the parallel deterioration of resources, problems with daily life emerge and can cause, or intensify societal tensions and conflicts– eventually leading to these conflicts blowing up.
Migration-inducing factors related to climate change must be separated: on one hand, there are the immediate, sudden disasters like floods and wildfires. These usually come quickly and cause large masses to escape, but as soon as the bad conditions pass, the people return. On the other hand, there are slower and more permanent problems: water source scarcity, depletion of farmlands, unfeasibility of cultivate lands and to breed animals, rising sea levels—in one word, the chronic degradation of income generation. Those effected lose their faith of surviving in a region, causing consistent outflows of migrants. In this case, people usually do not return.
Migration estimates associated with environmental factors increased year by year: in 2000 it was 24 million people, 2010, 50 million people, and 2016, 64 million people. If we are looking towards the future, by 2030 this number will be around 100 million people, and by 2050 it will be between 140 and 700 million people.
Is it automatic that they must leave their areas of residence? No, it’s not automatic and this doesn’t even need to happen. For instance, the responsibility of governments cannot be swept under the rug. The best examples of this are the case of Syria and Jordan. Three years before the outbreak of war in Syria, they experienced the most extreme droughts of the past 900 years which caused around 1.5 million people to immigrate to large cities, soon leading to the conflicts experienced today.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s water reserves are much smaller, the country is much more exposed to dryness, but the country still did not collapse– in fact, it remained stable and even accepted 1.5 million refugees. It is clear then, that institutions and policies play a huge role in conflict resolution.
The Directorate for Environmental Sustainability was founded by President János Áder in 2015. Its short-term goal was to advocate for the Paris Climate Change Agreement due in December 2015, and its long-term goal is to promote environmental sustainability which, according to Áder, is “above parties and affects all people.” The directorate is led by Hungary’s former UN Ambassador Csaba Kőrösi and is unique worldwide.
The lives of those living on small islands is also an important question given that certain islands may disappear within 20 to 30 years. These smaller countries posed the valid question of to what degree are countries that caused climate change are responsible. Rising sea levels threaten the lives of about 150 million people.
The connection between the quality of life decreasing because of climate change and migration exists. Most, however, do not want to go far, instead, they would rather go to a closer, livable territory: among current African migrants, only about one in every six is thinking about coming to Europe.
Mass migration can overwhelm the transit countries and target countries, potentially causing them to crack under the pressure. If climate change exceeds the 2 degree upper limit determined by research, then the number of those leaving their homes will dramatically rise. So what we are experiencing today in Europe, is just the tip of the iceberg.
How much does climate change affect Hungary? The threats of water loss are typically brought up here.
Climate change affects every country and every spot on Earth. I’m glad you mentioned water resources. Warming temperature is not the main issue here in Hungary—aside from the fact that it’s rising faster here than the European average. The main problem for us is that the effects of climate change are felt for 80% through water, and we live in a basin. In the long run, a 5% decrease of precipitation is predicted in the Carpathian Basin; however, what may eventually become a more decisive factor, is the extremity of precipitation. It may occur, that during brief periods there is a lot of rainfall, while for long periods of time there is nothing.
These extreme conditions in the surrounding mountains cumulate here in the Carpathian Basin. Consequentially, every 4 to 5 years, another century-old water-level record is broken in Hungary.
If we are examining the drought periods, which are getting longer and longer, we will see: during warm seasons, a three-week drought can easily cause a 100-billion-forint loss in agriculture. Simply waiting it out is not an appropriate preventative measure. We must develop the capability to store greater amounts of water to ward off sudden threats. This is why emergency reservoirs must be built in Hungary.
Meanwhile in Hungary—and globally—heatwaves and urban heat-islands are causing greater risk of heart and cardiovascular diseases.
The consistent shifting of natural habitat’s borders brings about invasive species which cause increasing problems, which emerge in the form of invasive plants, ticks, bugs. The Asian tiger mosquito has luckily not yet spread too much yet. But only 150 kilometers south of us, African malaria has appeared.
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How important are the actions of the political elite in protecting the environment?
Of course, political tools and decisions are essential in effectively combatting climate change; however, climate change cannot be stopped with only political mechanisms, and political responsibility cannot be the only thing we rely on.
It must be understood that climate change is a consequence; moreover, a consequence of our economic and societal functioning, humanity’s overall behavior.
In operating the way we do– increasingly mining for fossil fuels and burning them, restructuring land and changing hydrological circles, damaging the biosphere, building infrastructure and heavy industry, and our modes of transportation—we have made the earth the way it is today.
Because human activities resulted in the Earth’s current condition, only we can stop it. Making political decisions is important, but from the point of view of environmental protection, the regulation of economic operations, the dissemination of research, and the behavior of you and I as consumers and citizens when traveling and shopping on a daily basis, is just as important.
Generally, according to research studies, the future of climate change depends around 40% on consumer behaviors.
Hungary is a small country. What can it do, does it have any, if at all, influence?
It doesn’t matter if a country is small or large, these things are important everywhere.
The 7.7 billion people on Earth—and of course their predecessors—all contributed to this problem to varying degrees. And by 2050, all 10 billion people will have to fix this situation.
It’s not worth it to calculate which one of the billions will go a little less affected. Actually, the Paris Accords are built upon this very concept of shared responsibility.
Is Hungary doing enough against climate change?
Compared internationally, Hungary’s climate efforts are good– for example, if we’re looking at the per capita greenhouse gas emissions. In the past 25 years, we’ve succeeded in decreasing the total emission by 32%. The national garbage and waste generation is much less than in most of the EU countries. So, we may offer an example for the world.
However, if the question is should we be content with this, then my answer is obviously no. After all, the current level of emission is not sustainable, it also must be decreased.
Environmental protection means economic innovation and modernization.
A part of this means improving energy efficiency, making our energy mix and transportation cleaner, our industry and buildings more efficient. These are simultaneously characteristics of any competitive country.
President János Áder established the Kék Bolygó (Blue Planet) Foundation in 2017 using the 234,400 GBP left to every Hungarian President by electrical engineer Miklós Balázs after his passing in 2013. The foundation’s mission is “to help tackle climate change.” The Foundation’s Board of Trustees includes E. Sylvester Vizi, former MTA President, and János Martonyi, former Foreign Minister. Both are members of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today.
How do you see the Hungarian people’s perspective?
If we’re looking at the peoples’ prioritization of climate change, then we can see a positive, growing tendency: currently 82% of citizens consider climate change an important issue with preventable threats. This is higher than the European average.
On the other hand, if we look at how knowledgeable individuals are on their personal responsibilities, the situation is not as positive. I’ll provide an example which only partially relates to climate change: during the winter, air quality is significantly worse in big cities and many people die because of the heating-related air pollution in Hungary. People agree that this is a problem and must be resolved. However, less than 30% of people blame household heating, even though it’s a fact that 75% of pollution is caused by it. So, in regards to bearing responsibility and taking action on a personal level, we have much to improve.
For years there have been many arguments surrounding the necessity of the Paks expansion. Is this completely necessary? Can’t we replace atomic energy with a different energy source?
In theory, it can be replaced by many other sources, just that we can’t speak of only theoretical solutions. In any case, the demand for electricity is growing and, in consideration of climate change, it will keep growing.
A country’s energy-system (especially since weather-dependent energy sources have been integrated) is set up with base-load power plants that can consistently and steadily provide energy for transportation, industry, populace, etc.
What can provide a steady supply of electricity?
Nuclear, gas, coal, water, and geothermal sources. Being a lowland country, Hungary’s hydro potential is low; of course, there is coal, which pollutes the most, and bearing in mind environmental protection, is the first to be avoided. The problem with geothermal energy is that its technological background has not been developed enough yet, and thus it is not ready yet to scale up. Among these, the most expensive is the gas engine power plant. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of backup powerplants (only turned on when needed) are gas powered.
I understand that it would be ideal if everything could be powered by renewable energy—a very reasonable goal. However, in Hungary today, energy production from renewable sources makes up only about 13%– including biomass burning.
It’s important that the renewable energy ratio should grow quickly.
Luckily, in the past four years, the amount of solar energy has doubled per year. So we’re headed in the right direction.
Currently, around one third of the Hungarian electrical supply is imported. We could ask then, why don’t we buy more? A main caveat: a good amount of this electricity is also produced from coal in countries like Poland and Ukraine. The power generating capacities there continue to age and a portion will totally die out within 5 to 10 years, and of course, the decisions surrounding these energy plants won’t be made with our perspective and interests in mind. So, in order to ensure energy security, we must sustain a much higher level of national capacity to stably guarantee electricity supplies.
Until the stability, reliability, and storage of weather-dependent energy sources are resolved, then we require a robust power generation capacity.
The estimates of the International Energy Agency back this up as well.
They examined how much it would cost if we tried to supply Europe’s electricity demand exclusively with renewable energy sources according to their current level of development. They found that the last 20% (so from 80% to 100%) of transitioning to renewable, would cost more in all than the transition from 20% to 80%.
The capacity of renewables would need around 20 times more capacity if we were to entirely rely on this—not even including the necessary storage volume. This is why presently, it is not economically rational to implement a solely weather-dependent energy system in countries with similar geographic conditions as Hungary.
In 2018 the Danube’s water level was very low—and near the Paks powerplant, it almost reached critical levels. Doesn’t this endanger us?
According to the data, there was so little precipitation in the summer of 2018 throughout all of Europe, that rivers lowered to critical levels; for example, boats couldn’t navigate the Rhine, stopping all freight transport. Along the shores, coal plants had to be shut down because there wasn’t enough water to for cooling them down.
The Paks power plant uses the Danube’s water to cool down, but the question of not having enough water has never surfaced, and in reality, probably never will. Two questions arise, however: first, how much warmer is the water discharged into the Danube after being used to cool down the plant?; and second, within a certain distance, how much can the Danube heat up after passing through the power plant?
Last year we did indeed have to scale back the production of the Paks nuclear power plant (for the fourth time ever) but not for reasons of nuclear safety, but rather for environmental protection.
The more frequent drought’s warming effects must be considered: the water passing through the power plant is warmer by the time it reaches Paks.
However, I would emphasize that the water levels will never be too low to sufficiently cool the Paks nuclear plant in its current technological state. What may occur, is additional heat exchangers will need to be introduced to provide some cooling so that the Danube does not exclusively soak up all the heat—but this is another question and isn’t connected to nuclear safety.
Currently, the topic of plastic pollution is everywhere. Last year the government proposed an ambitious plan to introduce a deposit system for plastics, but it was eventually abandoned. Where does Hungary stand in this pursuit?
As far as I know, the debate wasn’t necessarily over the deposits, but let’s look at the basic elements! Since 1998, the amount of plastic waste in existence has doubled. Why did this topic explode onto the scene in 2018 exactly? Because of a single political decision: in 2018 China, from one day to the next, entirely banned the import of plastic waste. Up until then, developed countries, including western European countries, exported 80% of their plastic waste to China to be recycled, incinerated or dumped. And suddenly it became very obvious that plastic waste was going to build up in enormous amounts in Europe and the USA. All of a sudden, a new solution was required.
Since 2015 it was an EU directive to curb the use of certain plastic products—for instance, bags.
Now the question is, how can we curb the use of single-use plastic items to prevent waste-generation and to avoid the problem of growing amounts of garbage.
The amount of per capital plastic waste in Hungary does not surpass 60% of the European average, so we’re in relatively good shape there. Another positive is that Hungary already has, more or less, reached goals established by the EU directives for 2021. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do because there shouldn’t even be a single plastic bag in nature.
To my knowledge, after the first round of parliamentary debates, a new regulation will be prepared that prioritizes restricting the use of single-use plastics. Various European countries have banned certain single-use plastics with deadlines set for 2019-2021. In response, the European Commission brought forth their earlier directive; the debates are currently being argued over what level of plastic waste restriction should be set for 2021. This will also force Hungary to take action and speed up reduction.
Many countries struggle with the dilemma of sacrificing economic development for environmental protection. Does a win-win situation exist at all?
If we are looking at a traditional, linear economic model, then the conditions you’ve mentioned are true: as an economy grows, so does its need for natural resources, and thus its growing damage to the environment. However, the American Nobel prize winner economist, Isaac Kuznets, saw the potential for positive growth in the 40s and 50s: he believed the growing pressure on the environment that accompanies the economic growth eventually reaches a climax, and thanks to technological innovation, will then decrease. So environmental damage can be outgrown.
When he developed this theory, it was generally correct and had supporting examples. Just that, since then, the population has grown from 3 billion to 7.7 billion and will soon reach 10 billion. In the case of a population this size, the Kuznets curve no longer works. Why? Because meanwhile science has discovered conflicting evidence. For instance, in numerous territories, we have surpassed the so-called planetary boundaries.
Since the 70s, humanity uses up more natural capital than the Earth is capable of regenerating. As a result, the entire global population uses up the value of 1.7 Earth’s resources annually. In Hungary, the rate is around 2.3 while in the USA it’s around 11-12.
If we keep thinking according to the linear economic model of “produce it, manufacture it, use it, throw it out,” then we are definitely headed towards an environmental catastrophe. Some, already palpable, consequences include climate change, the approaching water crisis, the depletion of several natural resources, and the severe deterioration of biodiversity.
If this was the only option, then the choices really would only be, either get rich and destroy the earth, or live in poverty while watching the environment bloom. But the real question isn’t this black and white, rather, we need to find a solution that provides for the increase of values produced, while decreasing the ecological footprint.
There are multiple options here. One is simply to increase material and energy efficiency. But we won’t get very far with this.
The other is an elementally new approach, called circular economy. It is already present in the EU drawing boards. In Hungary, the deciphering of its functioning is currently underway.
But what does this transition to a circular economy mean? It means the economy is operated in a way that products created with natural resources and raw materials don’t end up as garbage but instead appear as a subsequent phase, as an input for other branches.
This would mean to close the loop of material circulation. This has to be applied to everything, but most importantly, water and raw materials. This means that products must be designed in a manner that in the end of their life cycle, they can be repaired or can be taken apart into usable pieces. The end of the consumer cycle must be restructured because, according to circular economy, our responsibility for the fate of a product does not end when we stop using it, but rather when we ensure that it can be recycled.
The laws of physics allow for at least a 300% increase in current material efficiency.
According to our current scientific knowledge, there is no other way to avoid an enormous ecological disaster than to restructure the production and consumption systems that lead us here.
But I will emphasize again: this doesn’t mean we have to live in worse conditions or produce less, instead, we should strive to create more value with fewer natural resources by closing the loop. This is possible.
Isn’t it too late? Humanity isn’t too late?
If I’m only looking at climate change, the situation is much more alarming than what the thermometer shows, given that it shows the results of what has been done 20 years ago. Thereby, what we do now will be visible on thermometers 20 years from now, so this is already on the pipeline. The big question is, can this process be stopped in X amount of years? Decisions and changes must be made now. My answer in short is, the situation is alarming, but not hopeless.
translated by Katrina Hier
all photos by Dénes Erdős/ Hungary Today