Gergely Karácsony, Budapest’s green-liberal Lord Mayor since October 2019, comes from Hungary’s rural north-east. With the convinced cyclist came a new style of leadership in the city: residents should be involved in decisions as much as possible. In mid-May, he announced his participation in the opposition’s primary election for the 2022 parliamentary elections. An interview
Gergely Karácsony, Budapest’s green-liberal Lord Mayor since October 2019, comes from Hungary’s rural north-east. With the convinced cyclist came a new style of leadership in the city: residents should be involved in decisions as much as possible. In mid-May, he announced his participation in the opposition’s primary election for the 2022 parliamentary elections. An interview on the occasion of the Climate Congress in Ulm.
You ran for the Hungarian local elections in October 2019 with the promise to make Budapest greener, more climate- and bicycle-friendly, and more liveable as Lord Mayor. Where do you currently stand with these plans?
In Budapest, the election was not about replacing a leader, but a leadership style with a completely different one. We believe in the vision of a green, liveable, free Budapest. To fulfil this, we are making decisions that are in line with and inclusive of the will of the people of Budapest. Instead of immediate, expensive and permanent interventions, we test our ideas with temporary solutions and pilot projects, especially in transport, and give people time to test and evaluate. We have also handed over new trams and buses, improved pedestrian safety through small targeted measures, started the renewal of the Great Ring Road, created new cycle lanes, developed a new climate strategy, we are developing the MOL Bubi bicycles and much more. Other important projects are the participatory budget, where Budapest residents can decide on almost three million euros. The phase for collecting ideas ended recently, now the ideas received will be voted on, and the winning ideas will be implemented in the summer. In April, the City Parliament adopted the new urban development strategy, which we will use over the next seven years to make Budapest even more liveable, greener, more competitive and more inclusive.
Your decision to give a lane on the busy Great Ring Road in the centre of Pest to cyclists drew some criticism. For example, it was said that only a few cyclists use the lane that is closed for them, while cars are jammed in the only lane left for them.
The Great Ring Road is the busiest cycling lane in Hungary today. It is absurd that the historic centre of Budapest has only a traffic function.
I was aware that this would not be a popular move, that I would have to convince some of my own voters. However, this is a debate that needs to be had. Basically, the point is that if the trends Budapest and the surrounding area are heading towards continue, life here will be hell in 10 years, much worse than it is now. In the long run, these inevitable measures make sense.
How do you assess the importance of the global “Fridays for Future” movement in Hungary?
With the climate crisis, we see that youth globally can be one of the most important engines for positive change. No wonder, because the sometimes insufficient engagement of politics will have a negative impact on the lives of younger generations. Therefore, I wholeheartedly welcome youth engagement as well as all kinds of bottom-up, constructive social activism. We want to encourage and support this in Budapest in every way. In Hungary, this is also very important because the government does not communicate enough about the climate crisis and does not use the available opportunities to inform the masses and shape opinions. The social pressure for a successful sustainability transition comes mainly from Fridays for Future and similar movements.
You were invited to the Municipal Climate Congress Baden-Württemberg 2021, do you generally keep up to date on climate policy, what is being debated abroad, for example in Germany?
Our city diplomacy is intended to make knowledge and international experience of foreign partners – for example in the association ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, in the Global Convenant of Mayors network or the Energy Cities – available to Budapest as well. I myself regularly inform myself about the strategies and successes of cities and countries that are leaders in climate protection.
It is a great pleasure for Budapest to have the opportunity to participate in the Congress and to give a welcoming speech in the person of Deputy Lord Mayor Kata Tüttő together with the Mayor of Ulm. Germany is also a leader in Europe in the fight against climate change, so we consider the climate policy solutions of German cities as prime examples.
Are there international cooperations of your city in the field of climate protection, for example with other cities and regions in the Danube region?
In 2019, Bratislava, Warsaw, Budapest and Prague jointly launched the “Pact of Free Cities” initiative. While this is not a technical policy cooperation on climate action, we are committed to putting sustainability and climate action at the heart of our city governance and development, to cooperate in this area and to jointly give a voice to climate-conscious metropolitan voters in the region. We are also exploring the possibility of jointly accessing funding from the EU’s Green Transition programmes. Our region needs to play its part in Europe’s green transition, and as we see that some governments, such as Hungary’s, have only committed to this rhetorically rather than practically, we want to be at the forefront of this process at city level.
What are the concrete measures of the Hungarian capital in the field of climate protection? Are there, for example, efforts for climate-neutral administrative buildings?
When I took office, one of the first things I did was to declare a climate emergency in Budapest. We set up the Main Department for Climate and Environment, which provides the institutional framework for climate protection. At the end of March, I adopted the Main City Climate Strategy and the Action Plan for Sustainable Energy and Climate that it had prepared. The priorities of the strategy include the significant reduction of harmful emissions and the reduction of the effects of climate change.
The largest CO2 emissions are related to the energy use of buildings. Therefore, one of the main objectives of the action plan is to upgrade the energy efficiency and energy-conscious operation of the City Hall and our facilities. Short-term plans include meeting the energy and heating needs of the capital’s wastewater treatment plants entirely with locally generated renewable energy.
Budapest’s climate strategy, adopted in April 2018 while still under its predecessor, set as one of its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6% from the 2015 baseline by 2020, and by 15% by 2030. Did the first target succeed?
At the moment, we do not have complete statistics for 2020, but the data for 2019 show that Budapest’s CO2 emissions did not decrease compared to 2015, but increased slightly. This is not surprising, as no meaningful programmes or measures to reduce them were launched in those years.
And does the city still have the same target for 2030, despite a much “greener” new Lord Mayor?
In line with the importance of the issue, or in better harmony with the European targets, we have increased the target in our new climate strategy: a 40% reduction in the city’s CO2 emissions by 2030. To achieve this, one third of Budapest’s housing stock must be comprehensively renovated in terms of energy efficiency in order to significantly reduce the energy demand of the buildings; this is where the greatest savings potential lies.
The second largest is the reorganisation of transport, e.g. reducing the share of car drivers from 61% to at least 30%, increasing public transport to 50% and cycling from about 1% to 5% through traffic restrictions, regulation and infrastructure improvements. The third largest potential is offered by the increased use of solar energy. Despite the large potential, only 0.2% of all electricity consumed in Budapest comes from it. To reach the target, a roughly 130-fold increase in this output is needed. To become a greener and more liveable city by 2030,we need the support of all stakeholders: residents, district administrations, the state, businesses and the EU. The planned improvements, most of which can only start with EU funds, are estimated to cost 2,500 billion forints. This will require EU funds, which are available to Hungary for just such purposes.
What measures or projects are you planning to strengthen sustainable mobility in Budapest?
The most important pillar of sustainable mobility in Budapest is public transport. We are continuously modernising the most important, mostly rail-based public transport systems. This year we will establish micro-mobility points in the inner districts, regulate the use of scooters, relaunch the bike-sharing system and develop bike lanes. In May, the tender for the design of EuroVelo routes started, local cycle path networks will be created within the framework of 10 state funding projects, and we will make pedestrian subways barrier-free. In 2021, the new FUTÁR public transport app will make it even easier to access transport information.
Do you actually know Dominic Fritz, the German mayor of Timisoara?
I welcome the fact that in 2020 a green and progressive politician became the head of Timisoara. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Dominic Fritz in person. I follow his work with interest, especially regarding his progressive and green measures.
Daniel Hirsch, Budapest