In Hungary’s historic eastern half, dotted with age-old and idyllic rural towns, an unnerving future is slowly arriving. On near-desiccated land, a large plant to produce batteries for electric vehicles is being constructed by Chinese firm, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL), with the express encouragement of the Hungarian state, offering around $860mn’s worth of infrastructure and tax incentives in their eagerness to become a market-leader in lithium-ion batteries. All told it will cost about $7.9bn – with equivalent returns should it prove successful. But many are worried about the non-monetary costs associated with the plant, in particular a whole host of environmental costs.
In particular, local residents are worried about how the large volumes of water needed to keep the plant’s equipment cool may result in not only the excessive diversion of regional water supplies but the pollution of these reserves, too, along with the soil. If something similar comes to pass, the result would be almost wholly disastrous, given that the Great Hungarian Plain has already been brought to the precipice of desertification by increasingly frequent droughts and heatwaves, the outriders of climate change’s slow march. For instance, in 2022, around 20% of cropland in Hungary fell barren.
But Hungary's government is willing to take these risks in order to steal a march on other EU member-states of the European Union, which plans to discontinue the manufacture of internal combustion vehicles by 2035 and it is hoped that this new plant will set Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, on the path to becoming Europe’s battery capital. Certain authorities in Hungarian life, like Gabor Varkonyi, an expert on the economics of the automotive industry, have gone public with their support for the plant, drawing up estimations that the site could employ as many as 9,000 people and given that 20% of Hungarian imports are categorised as being some sort of product for the automotive industry, will enable Hungary to avoid having the rug pulled out from under it as its customers transition to producing electric vehicles.
Nevertheless, the project has plenty of critics. An expert in environmental policy for WWF Hungary, Dalma Dedak has publicly taken issue with the project’s lack of comprehensive impact studies that obscure some nasty facts, like the plant's water consumption exceeding 40,000 cubic meters per day – a deeply worrying volume for an already strained ecosystem. But CATL has claimed that 70% of this volume will be met by recycled household wastewater, with only 30% coming from local water reserves.
As the town develops, of course, the peacefulness of rural life is likely to be submerged under speed and density, an outcome that many residents find objectionable. But the main worry remains ecological collapse, as local activist Eniko Pasztor, 65, made clear to the international press: “There’s no amount of money that can fix what we have ruined.” What many in Debrecen fear, ultimately, is a darker 21st century, one defined by both excessive, ecosystem-rupturing heat and industrialisation at all costs. It's a fear that many, all around the world, share.