Tuesday, April 23, 2024

As electric cars boom, locals fear Chinese battery plant will damage land in drought-stricken Hungary


DEBRECEN, Hungary – Beyond the rustic gardens and traditional houses of an eastern Hungarian village, a massive sugar industry project is taking shape.

Bulldozers and excavators are already preparing the land for the construction of the nearly 550-acre electric vehicle (EV) battery plant. The 7.3 billion euro ($7.9 billion) factory will be one of Hungary’s biggest foreign investments ever, and the government hopes to turn the central European country into a global hub for lithium-ion battery manufacturing in an era Where governments are demanding to limit. Greenhouse gas emissions by switching to electric cars.

But residents, environmentalists and opposition politicians worry that the massive factory – built by China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd (CATL) – will exacerbate existing environmental problems, strain the country’s precious water supply and further undermine China’s economy. Will give

“When you walk through the area where they’re building, you get this awfully bad feeling. I just feel this bad feeling in my stomach,” said Eva Kozma, 47, a local mother. who has joined other residents of a village near the construction site to oppose the project.

“Is this progress, is this the future? Pouring concrete over nature when we know how much the factory is going to pollute?” He said.

Kozma and others on the outskirts of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, say they were blindsided by the announcement that the factory would be built on valuable agricultural land. They fear that transporting large amounts of water to the plant for cooling equipment would threaten their water supply, and that chemicals from the plant could leach into the soil and water, harming the area’s natural resources. .

That region, the Great Hungarian Plain, is at risk from desertification, a process where vegetation is reduced due to high heat and low rainfall. Climate change-induced drought and record heat waves in the region have led to heavy water use by agriculture and depleted groundwater, resulting in disastrous crop yields.

Construction of a battery factory for electric vehicles manufactured by China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd (CATL) is underway in Debrecen, Hungary, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. Environmental problems and the use of the nation’s precious water supply. Credit: AP/Danes Erdős

Last year, Hungary experienced the hottest summer on record, and nearly 2.5 million acres, or 20% of the country’s crops, dried up. Experts say that unless a comprehensive water retention plan is put in place, most of the area will soon become unsuitable for agriculture.

Yet despite these environmental struggles, Hungary’s government believes that the EU’s ambition to end the manufacture of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 is an opportunity for the country to take its place as a leader in EV battery production. presents unique opportunities, and has initiated a major push to attract such investments.

And there will likely be buyers: Transport represents about a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, and more than 70% of those emissions are caused by road transport. If the EU is to reach its target of net zero emissions by 2050, EVs will play a vital role.

CATL’s 100 GWh battery plant in Debrecen, which is expected to create around 9,000 jobs, is the largest of several EV battery factories nationwide, part of the government’s strategy to serve foreign carmakers based in Hungary – such as German carmakers Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – as they transition to battery-powered vehicles.

Construction of a battery factory for electric vehicles manufactured by China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd (CATL) is underway in Debrecen, Hungary, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. Environmental problems and the use of the nation’s precious water supply. Credit: AP/Danes Erdős

Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said in Beijing earlier this month that the presence of those German carmakers had recently “stimulated” an inflow of Chinese investment into EV battery plants, and that “these German companies’ Chinese Suppliers consider Hungary a “meeting point of East-West investment”.

Gábor Varkonyi, an auto industry expert, agrees that the effort to attract battery makers is good for Hungary’s economy – especially considering that more than 20% of the country’s exports come from the automotive industry.

“It is in Hungary’s interest for these investments to appear here, especially hand in hand with German technology,” Varkonyi said. “In this way, the two can be tied here in the medium term, so that neither will be able to operate successfully without the other. In that sense, it is an absolute national interest.”

But Dalma Dedak, an environmental policy specialist at WWF Hungary, says that despite the intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making cars electric, environmental impact studies on the long-term consequences for Hungary’s air, soil and water have been lacking.

He said details have only been released on the first phase of the CATL plant’s multi-stage construction, so its footprint on the environment once fully underway remains unknown – something that has eroded trust between affected populations and the government. Is done.

“It is of concern that the approval process for the first phase of the plant does not show what kind of water consumption and emissions can be expected during construction of the entire plant,” she said. “Will Hungary’s resources be enough for these ambitious plans?”

The water consumption of the industrial park where the factory is located is expected to exceed 40,000 cubic meters (10.5 million gallons) per day – doubling Debrecen’s drinking water consumption and putting a huge burden on an area in the middle of a . Historic water crisis, Dedak said.

“In the long run, it is a problem and a question of how to supply water to a city that is short of water,” she said.

CATL says that 70% of its water consumption will come from gray water – domestic wastewater that has been treated – although this plan was not present in the environmental impact study of the first phase of the factory. Hungary’s Ministry of Economic Development did not respond to a request for comment.

Other critics of the investment point to the economy’s reliance on foreign-owned automobile companies, and see this as the depth of foothold Hungary has provided to China in Central Europe.

László Lórent Keresztes, chairman of the Hungarian parliament’s committee on sustainable development, said the Hungarian economy is “very vulnerable to the automotive industry, and this (the plant) exacerbates that vulnerability.”

Speaking at a protest against the factory in Debrecen this week, Keresztes said the roughly 800 million euros ($861 million) in infrastructure and tax incentives the Hungarian government will supply to CATL “is an unrealistic amount per job”. ,” and that – as is the case with German carmakers – much of the capital generated will be exported.

“These are essentially assembly plants, and they take profits out of here. It is also typical that they employ foreign guest workers, not Hungarians, but local people,” he said.

Some residents outside Debrecen worry that the huge plant will bring traffic and noise that will spoil the idyllic community where they came to raise their children. But mostly, they fear the irreversible impact it could have on their natural world.

“They took the land, they destroyed the soil, they destroyed the air, the water,” said Enico Pastore, 65, a local activist.

“There is no amount of money that can fix what we have destroyed. We have to make sure that what we have remains,” she said. “We’ve already done a lot of damage. I don’t understand why we need more, more.