Hungary – bad air, don’t care?

In Hungary, air pollution is the leading cause of premature deaths. However, contrary to popular belief, industrial pollution is not the main cause for the deterioration in relation to air quality.

by Diogo Baptista, Naomi de Ridder and Dyonne Onyema

According to Secretary of State Zoltán Kovács (50), consumer heating and particularly the burning of solid fuels emit particulate matter (PM) that have the most significant negative effect on people’s health. Those small airborne particles not only contribute to the respiratory disorders, but they can also cause cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

In summer, when the ozone level increases, pollution is at its most critical point. In recent years, the Hungarian government has taken significant measures to reduce emissions of particulate matter. In 2011, it launched a programme with several procedures that aimed to reduce the emissions in transportation, industry, agriculture and residential sectors. Several factors have an effect on air quality. “We only have limited room to manoeuvre and tackle this issue,” Kovács says. Temperature is a determining factor for the consumption of residential heating and in turn it influences the level of related emissions. Wind, rain and the terrain also influence the level of related emissions. Hungary is located within a geographical basin which prevents the natural mix of both hot and cold air. In turn, emissions accumulate locally and cause significant levels of air pollution.

Kovács declares that the government is making good use of EU funds and continuously takes part in air purity protection work at both international and EU levels. Currently, it is drawing up The National Air Stress Reduction, a programme that aims to reduce the emission of major air pollutants. Nonetheless, individual consumption plays a vital role in the programme. “It is extremely important to make people aware of their level of responsibility,” Kovács says. On the individual level, factors like transportation, food and heating consumption contribute exceedingly to air pollution. As a result, the ministry of agriculture launched the “Heat Cleverly!” campaign in 2014. The movement aims to inform Hungarian citizens about the impacts on their health, but it also provides guidelines on how to properly store fuel, heat their residence and choose the right combustion plant.

Dr. Gábor Bendik, member of the NGO Clean Air Action Group in Budapest (Levegő Munkacsoport), believes that in the view of NGO’s the government doesn’t do enough to reduce these problems. He says: “The public service has good intentions but the ministers aren’t taking concrete measures to restore clean air in the country.” For instance, in 2014, Hungarian public servants prepared a legislative draft to ban the consumption of lignite heating, a cheap and low-quality coal used mostly in rural areas of Hungary. Because of its high carbon content, it releases harmful toxins into the air. However, according to Bendik, other economic and political interests are more important in the eyes of the government. Consequently, the law was never established.

The Clean Air Action Group works together with several organizations on both national and international level. Most of their campaigns have a focus on reducing social issues and protecting the environment. Their most recent campaign for instance, sets a directive to review air quality plans in Budapest and its outskirts. Values that surpass the given threshold need to be reviewed and limited by local authorities.

According to Gábor Bendik, the Clean Air Action Group works closely together with Greenpeace on the matter of air pollution. In February, to draw attention to growing air pollution,  Greenpeace placed an 11-meter-long ’Clean Air!’ banner and an air pollution mask on the Liberty Statue on hill Gellért. “It was a spectacular activity to mobilize people,” Bendik says. The Clean Air Action Group has different approaches and focuses more on lobbying and creating drafts to convince decision-makers.

According to Bendik, 85% of the PM2.5 pollution in Hungary is coming from household heating and not transportation. Most individuals aren’t aware of how detrimental their heating consumption is. Thereby, Greenpeace aims to raise awareness among Hungarian civils considering the state’s ludicrous efforts.