Clear-cutting the forests: Hungary's answer to the gas crisis

A letter made headlines in Hungary in August: the Ministry of the Interior instructed the school authorities to check whether school buildings could also be heated with wood if necessary. A prerequisite for this are suitable ovens and safe exhaust air chimneys. And of course firewood - but that could become scarce this year, because many private households are flirting with the idea. Also because the government has softened the heating and electricity cost brake for private customers introduced in 2013. Since August 1, the state-subsidized electricity and gas prices have only applied up to the level of average consumption. In addition, consumers have to pay the world market price.

Hungary's recipe for gas shortages: firewood

In order to secure the increasing demand for wood, the government issued a regulation that allows almost unlimited logging in the Hungarian forests. Nature is at a disadvantage. The most important restrictions for the protection of the forests have been lifted, the loggers no longer have to take the breeding season of the birds and the growing season into account. Clear-cutting can even take place in forest protection areas. These far-reaching cuts in nature conservation were made possible because the government declared a state of emergency because of the Ukraine war. This means that it can (similarly to during the corona pandemic) change laws with ordinances - including the nature and forest protection laws.

Not only environmental organizations such as Greenpeace Hungary and WWF Hungary are protesting against this, but also the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "The ordinance endangers the long-term preservation of ecologically valuable native old-growth forests in forest protection areas," experts from the science academy wrote in a statement. In addition to living creatures and biodiversity, the climate, water and soil protection function of forests and their ability to adapt to climate change are also endangered. According to the scientists, the increased need for firewood could be covered by more intensive use of forest areas that are not under nature protection, such as the acacia forests that are widespread in Hungary.

Protests against clearing in the forests

Environmentalists also question whether the short-term increase in firewood production can solve the heating problem at all. Freshly felled wood is unsuitable as an effective heating material, emphasizes the "Working Group Air" (Levegő Munkacsoport): "The moisture content of good firewood is below 20 percent, better still in the range of 10-15 percent. In contrast, freshly felled wood contains 40- 50 percent water and when it's burned, the evaporation of water absorbs a significant portion of the energy it contains." The organization has issued a warning to consumers and strongly advises against buying wood with a moisture content above 20 percent for the coming heating season.

And indeed, at least some Hungarians seem to be skeptical. In a recently published survey by Greenpeace Hungary, 63 percent of respondents were against relaxing forest protection regulations. Only 22 percent were of the opinion that the measure is suitable for solving energy supply problems. In mid-August, several thousand people took to the streets twice against the new regulation in Budapest.

The protest has apparently pushed the government a little on the defensive. Agriculture Minister István Nagy initially dismissed criticism of the ordinance, but later issued a ministerial decree banning deforestation in forest protection areas and during the growing season - a move that environmentalists and opposition politicians welcomed as a show of understanding. However, a government regulation cannot be overridden by a ministerial decree. And apart from that, the decree of the Minister of Agriculture only applies to state-owned forests anyway – i.e. for 56 percent of the forests in Hungary. For this reason, environmental protection organizations are sticking to their criticism of the project and are calling for the complete repeal of the firewood ordinance.