As electric cars explode, residents fear Chinese battery factory could damage land in drought-stricken Hungary

DEBRECEN, Hungary — Just beyond the pastoral gardens and traditional houses of a village in eastern Hungary, a gigaproject of Chinese industry is taking shape.

Bulldozers and excavators are already preparing the ground for the construction of a nearly 550-acre electric vehicle (EV) battery plant. The 7.3 billion euro ($7.9 billion) plant will be one of Hungary’s largest-ever foreign investments, and the government hopes it will make the central European country a global hub of lithium-ion battery manufacturing at a time when governments are increasingly looking to limit greenhouse gas emissions by switching to electric cars.

But locals, environmentalists and opposition politicians fear the sprawling plant – built by China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) – could worsen existing environmental problems, affect precious supplies of water of the country and further undermines its economy in China.

“You get this viscerally bad feeling when you walk past the area where they are building. I just feel this bad feeling in my stomach,” said Eva Kozma, 47, a mother who joined other residents of a village near the construction site to oppose the project.

“Is this progress, is this the future? Pouring concrete on nature when we know how much the factory will pollute? she says.

Kozma and other residents on the outskirts of Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, say they were taken aback by news that the factory would be built on valuable farmland. They fear that the large amounts of water diverted to the factory to cool equipment will threaten their water supply and that chemicals from the factory will seep into the ground and water, damaging the natural resources of the region.

This region, the Great Hungarian Plain, is threatened by desertification, a process where vegetation recedes due to high heat and low rainfall. Droughts caused by climate change and record heat waves in the region have exacerbated high water consumption by agriculture and depleted groundwater, leading to devastating agricultural yields.

Last year, Hungary experienced its hottest summer on record and nearly 2.5 million acres, or 20% of the country’s cropland, dried up. Experts say that unless a comprehensive water retention plan is adopted, much of the region will soon be unsuitable for agriculture.

Yet despite these environmental struggles, the Hungarian government believes that the European Union’s ambitions to phase out the manufacture of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 present a unique opportunity for the country to take its place as leader in the production of batteries for electric vehicles, and has embarked on a big push to attract such investments.

And there will probably be buyers: transport accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, and more than 70% of these emissions are caused by road transport. If the EU is to achieve its goal of net zero emissions by 2050, electric vehicles will play a central role.

CATL’s 100 GWh battery plant in Debrecen, which is expected to create around 9,000 jobs, is the largest of a number of electric vehicle battery plants appearing in the country, as part of the strategy to serve foreign automakers operating in Hungary – such as German automakers Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – as they switch to battery-powered vehicles.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said earlier this month in Beijing that the presence of these German automakers had “inspired” the recent wave of Chinese investment in electric vehicle battery factories, and that “The Chinese suppliers of these German companies continue to see Hungary as the meeting point for East-West investment.

Gabor Varkonyi, an automotive industry expert, agrees that the effort to attract battery manufacturers makes sense for Hungary’s economy, especially since more than 20% of the country’s exports come from the automotive industry.

“It is very much in Hungary’s interest for these investments to appear here, especially arm-in-arm with German technology,” Varkonyi said. “In this way, the two can be linked here in the medium term, so that neither can function successfully without the other. In that sense, it is an absolute national interest.

But Dalma Dedak, an environmental policy expert at WWF Hungary, says that despite intentions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making cars electric, there has been a lack of environmental impact studies on the consequences to longer term for the air, soil and water of Hungary.

Details have only been released on the first phase of the multi-stage construction of the CATL plant, she said, so its environmental footprint once fully operational remains unknown. – which has eroded trust between the affected population and the government.

“It is concerning that the approval procedure for the first phase of the plant does not show what type of water consumption and emissions can be expected when the whole plant is built,” she said. “That is, will Hungary’s resources be sufficient for these ambitious plans?”

The water consumption of the industrial park where the plant 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 imposing a major burden to a region in the throes of crisis. historic water crisis, Dedak said.

“In the long run, it’s a problem and a question of how to supply water to such a water-scarce city,” she said.

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

Other critics of the investment point to the economy’s reliance on foreign automakers and see it as a deepening of China’s Hungarian entrenchment in Central Europe.

Laszlo Lorant Keresztes, chairman of the Hungarian parliament’s sustainable development committee, said the Hungarian economy “is very vulnerable to the automotive industry, and this (factory) increases that vulnerability.”

Speaking at a protest against the Debrecen plant this week, Keresztes said the roughly 800 million euros ($861 million) in infrastructure and tax incentives the Hungarian government will provide to CATL are “an unrealistic amount of money per job”, and that – as in the case of German automakers – the majority of the capital generated would be exported.

“They are basically assembly plants, and they take the profits from here. It’s also typical that they don’t give jobs to Hungarians, not to locals, but to foreign guest workers,” he said. declared.

Some of the residents outside Debrecen fear the massive factory will bring traffic and noise that will spoil the idyllic community where they have come to raise their children. But above all, they are afraid of 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 Eniko Pasztor, 65, a local activist who plans to leave the area if the plant is completed as planned. .

“No amount of money can repair what we have destroyed. We have to make sure that what we have stays,” she said. “We have already done a lot of damage. I don’t understand why we need more, more, more.


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