Avatar photo

Greg Dorey


Part of UK in Hungary

24th March 2011

Water on the table

The Informal Environment Council taking place in Gödöllő on 25-26 March has an exciting agenda even if it doesn’t have a snappy title. This is for several reasons. The topics for discussion are water and climate policy – an appropriate combination from Hungary’s point of view. Because focusing on water issues seems to be able to bring the climate threat closer to home here. (As do energy security and high fuel prices.)

Hungary has been aware of its above-average vulnerability to the risks of floods and droughts since the Academy of Sciences lead a comprehensive assessment study of the impact of climate change on the country in 2003. And the consequences of the 100 year record rainfall and severe flooding last spring and summer are still being felt. In fact extreme weather and water phenomena have been apparent here for the past few years, including unprecedentedly heavy storms – and many are now making a linkage with climate change. The media, the science community and even politicians are starting to see climate issues as a more immediate threat.  More and more they are seen as something affecting lives, livelihoods, the future of agriculture and public money – here and now.

Water is a barometer of an area’s ecological status, as well as a strategic resource. And Hungary has become acutely aware of the risks to this precious commodity, following incidents such as a cyanide spill from a Romanian gold mine into the River Tisza in 2002; and the red sludge disaster involving waste from an aluminium plant last October. Going further back, concerns over the environmental integrity of the Danube played a significant role in the mobilisation of the power of civil society in the late 1980’s, creating a powerful green movement in Hungary. This was triggered by a dispute over a hydro-power plant project between then-Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

It is therefore welcome that, under the proposed Danube Regional Strategy, Hungary will share responsibility for coordinating sustainable energy issues with Slovakia and for environmental risks with Romania. The history clearly shows why the Strategy is being given top priority in the Hungarian EU Presidency programme. If approved, it will be the EU’s second macro-region strategy. Beside the obvious water policy aspects, Hungary is keen to emphasise the Strategy’s potential in furthering EU integration and neighbourhood policy – since it brings together EU member states and countries outside the EU.

So Hungary has a vested interest in integrating water into all other relevant EU policy areas and improving cross-border co-operation. But on climate change issues the country has never been particularly progressive within the EU. And this in large part is due to Hungary still being well below its agreed CO2 emissions limits since the collapse of heavy industry in the early 1990’s, combined with uncertainties about the country’s green economy potential. The argument that the transition to a low carbon economy is not only compatible with economic growth but can actually stimulate higher growth is just gaining root here. Climate is often squeezed out of politicians’ considerations by other immediate and pressing – although shorter term – issues.

Against this backdrop, the climate agenda of the Informal Meeting of EU Environment Ministers this week will be dominated by the first substantial discussion of the draft Low Carbon Roadmap. The Roadmap was published by the Commission on 8 March. This is a milestone in EU climate policy: it establishes that we are not on track to meet 2020 targets and that the cost-effective way forward requires accelerated decarbonisation in the near and mid-term. This is not just about early mover advantage. It is about how to avoid unnecessary, much higher costs later on, when these are no longer an option.

For Europe’s future, the Hungarian Presidency’s handling of the Roadmap is key. They can play a significant role in securing a good start for the process and achieve worthwhile conclusions by the end of their Presidency. A good start might also benefit the EU’s preparations for the Climate Summit in Durban later this year.