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Work in progress – the sustainable transformation of Budapest

Today, more than half of the world’s population live in cities. By 2050 80 per cent of Europeans will be living in urban areas according to the United Nations Development Programme. Cities around the world are implementing sustainable strategies to efficiently manage this rapid urbanization and to ensure that we can enjoy the tremendous socio-economic benefits provided by cities in the future as well. The question remains: what makes a sustainable city?

With a population of more than 1,7 million, Budapest is one of the biggest cities in Central Eastern Europe. Nearly 19 per cent of the total population of Hungary is concentrated in the capital city, which is expected to further increase in the coming years, despite declining overall population. Budapest is also the economic engine of the country. However, harnessing the development potentials of the Hungarian capital city in the long-run hinges on the integration of sustainability principles into administrative action.

Budapest ranked 57th out of a hundred cities in the Sustainable Cities Index of Arcadis, that measures cities based their measures and investments in impact mitigation and sustainable growth. Meanwhile, Vienna – located only 240 kilometres far from Budapest – ranked 5th on the list.

“Although there are some positive trends, the physical, architectural and geographical endowments of Budapest would predestine the city to a higher place,” Ada Ámon, Chief Advisor to the Mayor of Budapest on Climate Affairs, tells CEENERGYNEWS.

Gergely Karácsony, who won the municipal election in October made climate action one of the three pillars of his vision for Budapest and vowed to transform the Hungarian capital into a green city.

According to Ms Ámon the new leadership of Budapest is committed to the city’s green transition. Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, improving air quality, as well as mitigating the harmful impacts of climate change is among the top priorities of the Municipality. However she mentions a number of challenges, that must be overcome in order to transform Budapest into a truly sustainable city.

“Building” a sustainable city

Integrating sustainable practices in the building and construction sector is a major challenge as approximately 75 per cent of the city’s GHG emission comes from buildings, explains Ms Ámon.

Budapest is famous for its beautiful, historical buildings, however, this also means inefficient heating systems and poor energy performance. This contributes to bad air quality and related health problems. Therefore, retrofitting the building stock is of huge importance and has great potential in fighting climate change.

She reminds that despite the extensive direct and indirect impacts of the building sector on the environment, society and the economy in the last decade there have been hardly any public funds supporting the renovation of people’s homes, not only in Budapest but also at the country level.

According to Zsombor Barta, President of the Hungary Green Building Council (HuGBC) the decarbonisation of the built environment will highly depend on how we can speed up the pace of the renovation of the building stock.

“Many national strategic documents were developed during last year towards the goals of the Paris Agreement,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS. “However, in order to achieve the yearly 3 per cent renovation, the national funding system needs to be changed, new green financing schemes have to be developed, better solutions and awareness of private investments are needed and the capacities of the whole construction sector need to be enhanced by training.”

Corvin innovation Campus. Photo: Hungary Green Building Council’s website.

However, Mr Barta underlines that the real estate market of Budapest has already changed dramatically in the past ten years.

The majority of new commercial developments – especially the office building sector – receives at least one green building certification, which is remarkable as these standards provide a good framework for sustainable design, construction and operations.

The development of the EU acquis sends a strong signal of commitment to boost the energy performance and decarbonisation of the building stock. According to the President of HuGBC, regulatory changes clearly promote energy efficiency and smart technologies as investors want to future proof their projects. Equally important, according to HuGBC is the adoption of life cycle thinking and the integration of circular economy principles into building practices.

E-Mobility on the rise

Mobility represents a major bottleneck for sustainable urban transformation in general. This also holds true for Budapest.

“Even though the city has a well-developed public transport system and the number of bike rides has increased very significantly in the recent decades, cars still have the priority in the urban mobility,” acknowledges Ms Amon.

Accelerating e-mobility could contribute significantly to reduced carbon emissions, thus vastly improving the overall quality of life for residents by mitigating air pollution.

MOL Bubi bikes. Photo: MOL’s website.

“The most important point from the perspective of urban planning is the availability of the charging infrastructure that enables the use of EVs,” starts Tamás Czikora, Head of Mobility at MOL Group, Hungary’s biggest integrated oil and gas company, that seems to adapt to the winds of change and diversify its portfolio by tapping into the rapidly growing business segment of e-mobility.

At the moment MOL Plugee operates close to 20 fast and 1 ultra-fast DC chargers in Budapest and its closest surrounding area and the number will reach 30 by the end of this year. MOL supports the further growth of e-mobility in the region and aims to fine-tune its longer-term growth ambitions in-line with the developments on the market, in the growth of the EV fleets and the demand and utilization of its chargers, which seems to be constantly growing.

“Effective management of scarce urban space is also a key element of sustainable infrastructure. MOL started its car-sharing service, MOL Limo more than two years ago to contribute to the solution of this problem by freeing up parking spaces,” Mr Czikora tells CEENERGYNEWS. “We are currently operating the largest car-sharing service in Budapest with 450 cars and last year the EV-share of the fleet already reached one-third, that we would like to further increase in the future.”

Shared micro-mobility services such as bikes and e-scooters could also safely and sustainably make up for the transit challenges. Since 2014, MOL is also present in this segment and as Mr Czikora describes, it will continue to have a growing part in the city’s sustainable future as more than 100 thousand people are now registered to ride the so-called MOL Bubi bikes.

There’s still some way to go in recycling

Waste generation is intrinsic to urbanisation, but good waste management strategies can play a critical role in helping cities improve their energy efficiency and become more sustainable in the long-term. Municipal Public Services (FKF), as a public service provider, collects a total of 800,000 tonnes of waste per year from households and businesses in Budapest.

More than 50 per cent of the municipal solid waste generated in the capital city goes to the only waste-to-energy power plant in Hungary, owned by FKF.

“The energy generated from the incarnation of nearly 380 thousand tonnes of waste is enough to cover the annual electricity demand of 50 thousand households and the annual district heating 16,000 apartments,” Ágoston Tringer, Head of Department at FKF, tells CEENERGYNEWS.

Budapest has changed its collection system to door-to-door collection covering 100 per cent of households six years ago. According to the data of FKF, now about 10 per cent of the waste is collected separately, as described by Mr Tringer.

There’s still room for improvement, but as international examples demonstrate it takes time to integrate these practices into the daily routine of people. Apparently there are still some gaps in information and knowledge concerning selective waste collection among the population, but in general, their reaction has been positive.

Separated waste collection is the basis of any further recycling activity but Budapest lags behind its neighbours in this respect. Warsaw collected 20 per cent of its waste separately already in 2015, for Prague this was 30 per cent and in Vienna, it reached 40 per cent.

Hence the Hungarian capital needs to catch up, especially in the light of the Commission’s recently announced Circular Economy Action Plan, which also includes new targets for the reduction of waste and promotes the adoption of a long-term path for waste management and recycling.

Working for a green city

At the end of the day, in the upcoming years, Budapest must sow the seeds of a lasting sustainable transformation in order to build a climate-resilient, innovative and smart urban community. The new city leadership could serve as a vanguard for this change.

Ms Ámon emphasises the importance of streamlining the environmental aspects into all strategies and policies of Budapest while describing the Municipality’s plans to create a favourable regulatory environment that could fast-forward sustainable transformation.

“The new integrated urban development strategy is already underway,” she concludes. “The process of developing it has been planned with a participatory mindset. We are coordinating these processes not just making sure that we harmonise these documents but also to make sure that we involve the most possible people and stakeholders into the process.”

Just as most of the big cities around the world, in addition to struggling with the COVID-19 crisis and its economic and social fallout, Budapest must also double its efforts to implement the necessary policies that will allow us to deliver on our commitments in the framework of the Paris Agreement and the Europan Green Deal. Unlocking opportunities for sustainable transformation will pave the way towards these objectives.

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