Due to the boom in electric cars, locals fear that the Chinese battery factory will cause damage to drought-stricken Hungary
DEBRECEN, Hungary — Next to the shepherd’s gardens and traditional homes of a village in eastern Hungary, the giga project of Chinese industry is taking shape.
Bulldozers and excavators are already preparing the ground for the construction of a nearly 550-hectare electric vehicle (EV) battery factory. The 7.3 billion euro ($7.9 billion) factory will be one of Hungary’s biggest foreign investments, and the government hopes the central European country will become a global hub for lithium-ion battery production in an era where governments are increasingly want to limit. greenhouse gas emissions by switching to electric cars.
But residents, environmentalists and opposition politicians fear the sprawling factory – built by China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) – will exacerbate existing environmental problems, harm and further undermine the country’s precious water resources. economy to China.
“You get a bad feeling when you walk by the area where they are building. I simply feel this bad feeling in my stomach,” said Éva Kozma (47), a local mother who opposed the project along with other residents of the village close to the construction site.
“Is this progress, is this the future? Concrete nature while knowing how polluting the factory will be?” he said.
Kozma and others in the suburbs of Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, say they were blindsided by the announcement that the factory would be built on valuable farmland. They fear that the large amount of water diverted to the plant’s cooling equipment will threaten their water supply and that chemicals from the plant could leach into the soil and water, damaging the region’s natural resources.
That region, the Alföld, is threatened by desertification, a process in which vegetation shrinks due to high heat and low rainfall. Droughts caused by climate change and record heat waves in the region have complicated agricultural water use and depleted groundwater, leading to devastating crop yields.
Last year, Hungary had its hottest summer on record, and nearly 2.5 million hectares, or 20 percent of the country’s cropland, dried up. Experts say that unless a comprehensive water retention plan is in place, much of the region will soon become unsuitable for agriculture.
Despite the environmental struggles, the Hungarian government believes that the European Union’s aim to phase out the production of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 represents a unique opportunity for the country to play a leading role in the production of batteries for electric vehicles, and has begun the a significant boost to attract such investments.
There will likely be buyers: transport accounts for almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, and more than 70% of this is caused by road transport. If the EU is to reach its goal of net zero emissions by 2050, electric vehicles will play a key role.
CATL’s 100 GWh battery factory in Debrecen, which is expected to create around 9,000 jobs, is the largest of the emerging electric vehicle battery factories across the country, and is part of the government’s strategy to serve foreign car manufacturers present in Hungary, such as German car manufacturers. Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – as they transition to battery-powered vehicles.
Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s foreign minister, stated in Beijing earlier this month that the presence of German car manufacturers “inspired” the recent flood of Chinese investments in electric vehicle battery factories, and that “the Chinese suppliers of these German companies continue to view Hungary as such. the meeting point of East-West investment.”
Automotive industry expert Gábor Várkonyi agrees that the effort to attract battery manufacturers is also reasonable from the point of view of Hungary’s economy – especially when more than 20 percent of the country’s exports come from the automotive industry.
“Hungary is very interested in these investments appearing here, especially in conjunction with German technology,” said Várkonyi. “Thus, in the medium term, both can be connected here, so that neither will be able to work successfully without the other. In that sense, it is an absolute national interest.”
According to Dedak Dalma, WWF Hungary’s environmental policy expert, despite the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying cars, there is a lack of environmental impact studies on the long-term consequences for Hungary’s air, soil and water.
Only details of the first phase of the CATL plant’s multi-stage construction have been released, so its environmental footprint once fully operational remains unknown – and this has undermined trust between the affected population and the government.
“It is a concern that the permitting process for the first phase of the power plant does not show what water consumption and emissions can be expected when the entire plant is built,” he said. “In other words, will Hungary’s resources be sufficient for these ambitious plans?”
The water consumption of the industrial park where the factory is located is expected to be more than 40,000 cubic meters (10.5 million gallons) per day – doubling Debrecen’s drinking water consumption and putting a heavy burden on an area where the factory is located. historic water crisis, said Dedak.
“It’s a long-term problem and a question of how to supply water to such a water-scarce city,” he said.
According to CATL, 70% of its water consumption will come from greywater – treated domestic sewage – although this plan was not included in the environmental impact study for the factory’s first phase. The Ministry of Economic Development of Hungary did not respond to the inquiry.
Other critics of the investment point to the economy’s dependence on foreign-owned car companies and see it as deepening the foothold Hungary has given China in Central Europe.
László Lóránt Keresztes, chairman of the Parliament’s Sustainable Development Committee, said that Hungary’s economy is “very vulnerable to the automotive industry, and this (plant) increases this vulnerability.”
Speaking at a protest organized against the factory in Debrecen this week, Keresztes stated that the roughly 800 million euros ($861 million) in infrastructure and tax benefits that the Hungarian government provides to CATL are “an unrealistic amount of money per job” and – like e.g. in the case of German car manufacturers – most of the capital produced would be exported.
“These are essentially assembly plants, and they take the profit from there. It is also typical that they do not give jobs to Hungarians, not to locals, but to foreign guest workers,” he said.
Some of the residents of Debrecen fear that the huge plant will bring traffic and noise, which will destroy the idyllic community where they have come to raise their children. But most of all, they fear that this could have an irreversible effect on their natural world.
“They took the land, destroyed the soil, destroyed the air, the water,” said Enikő Pastror (65), a local activist who plans to leave the area if the plant is completed as planned.
“There is no money to fix what we have destroyed. We have to make sure that what we have is preserved,” he said. “We’ve already done a lot of damage. I don’t see why we need more, more, more.”
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