04 Jul 2024, 14:00
Nikoletta Nagy

Orbán’s opportunistic record belies Hungary’s new pro-climate rethoric

Photo shows Olaf Scholz, German Federal Chancellor, Ursula von der Leyen, Alexander De Croo, Belgian Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, Bulgarian Prime Minister, and Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister. Photo: European Union.
Viktor Orbán with other EU leaders. Photo: European Union.

Strong popular demand for climate action and a push towards more energy autonomy in the wake of the war in Ukraine have led Hungary’s populist leader Viktor Orbán to describe himself as an advocate of climate-friendly power generation. But his opportunistic policy track record reveals a lack of real conviction, creating the risk that Orbán could revive his “anti-elite” rhetoric against EU climate action anytime he sees fit, policy experts warn.

In short

Populist parties in Hungary

  • The leading political party in Hungary is the populist Fidesz, headed by Viktor Orbán. The party has been in power for 14 years and holds two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

Populists' impact on climate efforts

  • Orbán has repeatedly vetoed EU climate policies and decried them as beneficial to richer countries only. But following surveys that revealed strong popular demand for climate action, the government has presented itself as a climate champion since around 2022, but its policies have remained inconsistent.

What does the population want?

  • Surveys show that a large majority of Hungarians consider climate change a very serious problem, and about three in four people say the government is not doing enough to tackle it. But research also shows that even though most Hungarians care about climate change, they are not prepared to make major personal sacrifices to address it.

"We don’t represent progressive ideas, we represent the people.
We are the worst nightmare of the Brussels bureaucrats."

This social media post by Orbán during the EU election campaign in early 2024 perfectly encapsulates the Hungarian leader’s long-standing populist narrative: blaming "EU elites" for real or imagined burdens on “ordinary people.” 

Climate policy is no exception to this approach. But Orbán’s relationship with efforts to mitigate climate change is complex, with a regular disconnect between rhetoric and action. Until fairly recently, he often railed publicly against climate policies, while at the same time generally supporting international efforts to reduce emissions. But when the energy crisis catapulted Hungary’s dependence on fossil fuel imports into the limelight, when the need for international competitiveness on green technologies came into the spotlight, and opinion polls showed strong popular support for climate action, he changed course by speaking out in favour of renewables and climate action – but often without implementing a matching list of policies.

Experts say that notwithstanding his newfound pro-climate rhetoric, Orbán lacks real conviction on the issue, and stands ready to exploit public resentment against additional costs whenever it might suit him. This could already be the case during the upcoming discussions about the EU’s 2040 emission-cutting target, they warn.

"Orbán has used climate policy with great success in order to veto European initiatives and strengthen his own role," climate policy expert István Bart from Hungarian think tank Energyclub told Clean Energy Wire.

Long-standing populist power

Hungary is an outstanding example for the influence of populism on climate policies in Europe, because in contrast to other countries, it has been led by a populist - and increasingly autocratic – leader for many years.

Orbán became prime minister in 2010, when he won a two-thirds majority in parliament. Fourteen years on, he can still count on that two-thirds majority. His Fidesz party is right-wing today, but it started out as a centre left party before 2011. It has typical populist features, such as a strong nationalist and anti-expert rhetoric, which includes attacks against scientists or NGOs. Fidesz rose to power by stirring anti-establishment sentiments – it promised "to chase the corrupt Socialist elite away and 'bring the people back to power'," wrote researcher Botond Feledy.

Over the years, the party has continuously picked new "elite" public enemies: Technocrats, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission and the EU as a whole, former German chancellor Angela Merkel, Hungarian-born American investor George Soros, as well as the U.S. and the West as a whole. Fidesz has skilfully used populist narratives to redirect public attention away from domestic debates, and toward – real or perceived – international adversaries.

Early contradictions

The contradictions between Orbán’s rhetoric on environmental issues and his actual policies started early. When he first rose to power, he promised that environmental protection would remain an important issue for his government – only to abolish the environment ministry shortly after by reassigning its responsibilities first to the ministry of rural development and then to the agriculture ministry. Zoltán Illés, who was state secretary for the environment until 2014, told an interviewer that behind closed doors Orbán had described environmental protection as a left-wing issue for rich countries that hindered economic development.

In the following years, Orbán sharpened his attacks on the EU’s climate policies. He initially vetoed the bloc’s emissions reduction plans for 2050, saying that achieving climate neutrality in that time frame would be very costly and would impose a huge burden on Hungary’s industry. He argued that it falls on the government to keep energy costs down for Hungarian families. In 2020, Orbán ruled out any coalition with green parties, accusing them of wrapping left-wing ideology into climate protection. He compared them to a watermelon: Green on the outside but red on the inside.

At the start of the energy crisis, Orbán blamed the EU’s carbon price for the surge in electricity prices – when in fact most of the increase was due to high natural gas prices, which mainly resulted from strong demand during the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Orbán accused then-EU commissioner for the Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, of "killing the European middle-class with the 'Fit for 55' legislative package," the EU’s plan for cutting emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030. Such criticism was not limited to Hungary at the time. Poland, for instance, sought a rethink of EU climate policy amid the rising prices.

Still, such public displays of contempt often stood in contrast to decisions by his government. It has generally voted in favour of climate action, especially international agreements. Hungary was the first EU country to pass legislation in support of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. When former U.S. president Donald Trump decided to pull his country out of the accord in 2017, Orbán told a radio audience: "In Hungary, there is a consensus that climate change is real, that it is dangerous and since it is a global phenomenon, it requires global action to combat it."

Change of course due to the energy crisis and popular demand

Orbán toned down his previous attacks on energy transition policies when the energy crisis underlined the benefits of renewables for increasing energy sovereignty, and when surveys increasingly showed that Hungarians wanted more climate action.

In his 2020 state of the nation address, Orbán called protecting the climate and nature "our Christian and patriotic duty," and the government later introduced a climate law with the target to reach climate neutrality by 2050 – which researchers have criticised for its lack of details. The transition to renewables has also started to become more of a focus for Orbán. "In the economy, we see that the era of green energy is no longer knocking on our door: it has kicked the door in," he said in his 2024 state of the nation address, arguing that Hungary "needs the green transition."

Energy transition policies allow the country to "produce green energy domestically and lower dependence on foreign energy imports," explained a Hungarian expert on international climate policy, who did not want to be named.

According to researcher Bart, opinion polls showing public support for climate action were key for Orbán’s public conversion to climate action – however superficial it may be. "My guess is that the government surveyed people’s attitudes towards climate policies, and that’s why a change in the narrative is happening."

As early as 2019, the government was required by EU regulations to consult the public on its long-term climate strategy. It did not advertise the consultation and kept it open for one week only, but still around 200,000 people filled out the survey. The results showed widespread demand for climate action among respondents. Other surveys revealed that a large majority of Hungary's population considered climate change a very serious problem, and about three in four people said the government was not doing enough to tackle it.

“A few years ago, [the government] dismissed [climate action as] a left-wing issue," said the expert who did not want to be named. "We have moved on from this, and it seems that Hungary being a climate champion is the narrative now," the expert told Clean Energy Wire.

Mixed energy transition progress

Regardless of the Hungarian leader’s new rhetoric, local experts doubt Orbán’s true convictions. His policy track record remains patchy, and the country’s mixed energy transition progress reveals a lack of true commitment.

According to the draft update of Hungary’s climate plan (NECP), 90 percent of electricity production in the country will be carbon-free by 2030, and complete climate neutrality should be achieved by 2050.  

Climate policy expert Bart criticised that even though the government now officially aims for climate neutrality, it does not do very much to reach that goal – "and definitely not doing anything that would inconvenience the voters, or business interests.”

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), and independent monitoring tool for tracking countries’ climate change mitigation performance, criticises Hungary for doing very little to phase out oil and gas use.

Orbán's government bets on nuclear and solar energy. The country has one nuclear power station with four reactors, which generate about half its entire electricity consumption. It has already extended the reactors’ lifetime and wants to build two more.

The rollout of solar energy has also gathered significant speed thanks to a subsidy programme - the government even exceeded its targets for solar development. In the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) sent to the European Commission in 2019, the government calculated that solar energy capacity would reach around 3.3 gigawatts by 2024. But Hungary already exceeded 5.6 gigawatts last year – a capacity it was meant to reach as late as 2029.

In just a few years, Hungary went from being a laggard in the share of solar electricity to the top 3 league in the EU. But continued progress remains uncertain: Grid development is slow, and new rules on remuneration and power prices make new installations less attractive.

In contrast to solar, new wind installations were scarce in the country in recent years, because regulations do not permit the establishment of wind farms within 12 km of a populated area. There are indications that this rule is about to be relaxed, and according to the energy ministry, a total capacity of 1-1.5 gigawatts can be economically realised in Hungary. In contrast, other experts say that the country could economically realise 16 gigawatts of wind capacity.

Damage limitation

At the EU level, the impact of Orbán’s earlier resistance to ambitious climate policies has mostly been limited, as the relevant laws are usually decided by majority voting. “Thus, a single member state does not have the option to veto EU climate policy measures," climate expert Bart said. "At the moment, climate policy enjoys significant support both among member states and in the European Parliament, so most of the time, Hungary’s support is not needed for climate policy to progress," he said.

The recent vote on the EU’s controversial Nature Restoration Law was an exception. "Hungary’s last-minute decision to join other opposing member states regarding the Nature Restoration Law resulted in the temporary failure of the proposal," Bart recalled. The legislation was later agreed thanks to Austria changing its position.

Experts warn that the EU cannot count on Orbán’s limited pro-climate credentials in upcoming decisions. "The planned 2040 EU climate target will probably be a sticking point," the unnamed expert warned.

The EU is aiming to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050 and has agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels as a stepping stone. It now sets its eyes on an intermediary target for 2040. In February, the European Commission recommended that the bloc reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2040. Hungary reacted with initial scepticism, and a final decision on the target will only be taken by the EU’s new leaders.

Costs a big burden

When it comes to supporting climate policies, new cost burdens on citizens appear to be a red line for Orbán – and opinion polls suggest that the same is true for most Hungarians. They may be worried about climate change, but do not do a lot to change behaviour in their daily lives. Additionally, Fidesz supporters worry significantly less about the climate than the rest of the country.

The aforementioned expert also warned that public support of climate action has its limits. "As long as we don't expect the population to change their way of life, it will be open to green issues, but after that this openness or the desire to do something may decrease."

Orbán has good reasons for his pledge to prevent "burdening families" with ever higher energy prices, because many are already strapped for cash. Climate expert Bart warned that widening the scope of EU emissions trading to transport and heating fuels will bring higher prices for everyday goods, such as petrol for cars or gas for heating homes, which risks undermining support – and Orbán stands ready to exploit people’s grudges. "As climate policies start to affect the everyday lives of people, this will inevitably lead to resentment," Bart said, adding that compensating the price rise with the help of EU funds would therefore become very important.

"In general, in Hungary, as in other low-income EU countries, energy prices are a much more salient political issue than in wealthier member states," Bart told Clean Energy Wire. "Thus, more ambitious climate policies are on a collision course with Orbán’s overall political strategy.”

Future EU green industrial strategy could align with Orbán's transition goals - think tank

Most recently, Orbán has agreed that the European Union needs a green transition – just not the one the "EU elites" have introduced until now.

"The bad decisions of the current Brussels elite […] have rendered the European economy uncompetitive [and] have wrecked the green transition," the Hungarian leader said at the end of June in Vienna. Orbán shared the stage with the leader of the Czech Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) Movement – and former Czech prime minister – Andrej Babiš and the head of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) Herbert Kickl. The three announced a new political alliance at EU level, called the "Patriots of Europe", which for example aims for more national sovereignty and stricter migration policy.

When it comes to the future of EU climate policy, experts say that a focus on industry and competitiveness could align it with Orbán's goals.

In an op-ed in the Financial Times, Orbán laid out Hungary's aim for the 6-month presidency of the EU Council of member state governments, which the country took over on 1 July. He called the EU Green Deal the chief example of "misguided Brussels decisions that go against the realities of the world economy", and suggested that the EU had imposed "regulations that hinder industrial stakeholders and burden citizens."

At the same time, Orbán emphasised that "it is obvious that Europe must aim for leadership in the green industry, with particular emphasis on electric vehicle development and manufacturing." To do so, Hungary was proposing a green industry strategy in collaboration with major industrial stakeholders, and a "new competitiveness deal", he said.

However, as president of the EU Council, Hungary does not have the power to introduce new policy or legislation for the European Union. In addition, as the new parliament and European Commission are also just forming, there will be little legislative work in the second half of 2024, where Hungary could push or slow down green policies.

Think tank Strategic Perspectives thus said Hungary's presidency is going to focus on political work and agenda-setting. It called on the country's government to rally member states around an ambitious 2040 climate target as part of a wider EU industrial strategy.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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