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Hungary's Orban faces growing heat over climate change

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Budapest (AFP)

As Hungarians increasingly fret about climate change, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban is facing growing heat over the government's perceived ambivalence on a burning issue.

About 85 percent of Hungarians now believe climate change is a "very serious" problem, according to the EU's latest Eurobarometer survey.

The mostly flat Central European country -- which marked its hottest year on record in 2018 --is particularly vulnerable to climate change-driven droughts, says the WWF.

Last month a senior minister called Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg a "sick child" and her street movement "repellent" to ordinary Hungarians.

A day later, several thousand mostly young people joined Budapest's biggest climate strike to date with one carrying a poster "Greta is not sick, our planet is, and our politicians".

Orban stoked further scepticism in June when he along with Poland and the Czech Republic vetoed a joint EU declaration on bloc-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.

Hungarian NGO Energia Klub accused Orban -- popular at home for his hard line on migration -- of botching the response.

Climate "is an issue he cannot yet handle. Normally he sets up an agenda, like migration, and then controls its communication," Energia Klub expert Istvan Bart told AFP.

"On climate (the government) is running behind events and trying to catch up."

- 'Postponing real climate action' -

Hungary was one of the first EU countries to ratify the Paris Climate Accord, but Orban downgraded environmental protection soon after he came to power in 2010.

Last month, Orban dismissed as "pure nonsense" the "green argument" that having more children impacted climate change.

"For now, the government tries to portray that the extremist opposition want to radically change the Hungarians' way of life, while it is taking realistic steps," Bart said.

At a recent UN climate summit in New York Orban's loyal ally President Janos Ader pledged that by 2030 Hungary will boost its solar energy capacity tenfold, phase out coal-based energy, and ramp up nuclear energy.

Unimpressed critics noted that Ader has no executive power to implement the measures.

Bernadett Szel, a prominent green politician, said the president was being used as a "green shield" by Orban to deflect climate criticism.

"Orban is part of a network of irresponsible politicians like (US President) Donald Trump and (Brazilian President) Jair Bolsonaro who are responsible for postponing real climate action," she said.

The EU still hopes to convince Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to support the goal of 2050 carbon neutrality, which needs the okay from all EU members to be adopted.

Orban is meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, a defender of the 2050 goal, on Friday with climate on the agenda.

Orban has insisted that Brussels -- rather than Hungarian families slapped with higher utility bills -- should pay for de-carbonising economies in poorer eastern member states.

- Bargaining chip -

Although Hungary is less coal dependent than its neighbours, Orban's veto was "about showing Central European solidarity," said Agoston Mraz, an analyst at Hungary's Nezopont Institute.

The veto also gives Budapest a bargaining chip during ongoing tough budget negotiations with Brussels, according to Benedek Javor, a former Hungarian green MEP.

Hungary faces potentially a 25 percent slash in EU development funding during 2021-2027 from the previous seven-year period.

"For Orban, climate change is about getting money," Javor said. "Less ambitious climate goals now can be leveraged to get more cash later."

Business and political interests in Orban's orbit are paramount, observers say. Well-connected businessmen who dominate the solar panel sector would benefit from the New York pledge.

"But if it's not oligarch-friendly it doesn't get done in Hungary," Bart said. "And climate doesn't care who owns solar panels."

More controversial is Hungary's commitment to the expensive Russian-backed extension to the nuclear plant at Paks south of Budapest, Hungary's biggest power utility.

The government says carbon neutrality by 2050 and low household utility bills are only possible with nuclear energy.

But critics like Javor, wary of Orban's links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, call Paks "a political rather than an energy project".

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