In times of climate and energy crises, it is increasingly urgent to take decisive steps towards a green transition. Yet public support to climate-friendly and energy-efficient policies does not automatically arise. The green transition is not only a public policy challenge, but also a communication one that requires finding approaches that can gain support for green measures from the widest possible audience. To help this endeavour, we conducted six focus group discussions in five cities involving Hungarians belonging to those sociodemographic groups that place a relatively low emphasis on post-material issues, but do not necessarily oppose green proposals.
Our research examines four green issues that one can consider to be the most relevant topics of green politics in Hungary. According to a Policy Solutions research on the public perception of green policies in 2021, Hungarians consider air pollution and plastic pollution to be the two biggest environmental issues in the country. In addition, the Russia-Ukraine war and the energy crisis have led to a significant increase in the public’s awareness of energy efficiency (especially in buildings due to high utility bills) and the mix of the energy we consume, not only in Hungary but across the EU. These two issues linked to the energy crisis have thus been added to the issues of air pollution and plastic pollution.
The goal of this study is to give valuable input for the development of effective green communication. Through a public policy analysis, this study aimed to understand the key challenges and formulate policy proposals for four key environmental issues in Hungary: air pollution, plastic pollution, energy efficiency of buildings, and the country’s energy mix. The policy proposals were developed in collaboration with environmental organisations and served as the basis for our focus group research. The focus group discussions were held in five Hungarian cities (Budapest, Szeged, Miskolc, Dunaújváros, Veszprém) in October 2022 and involved a diverse group of individuals who are potential supporters of green causes, but not already committed members of the green movement.
The goal of the research was to gain insight into people’s perception of green issues and proposed solutions, and to test different narratives of green communication. Based on the lessons drawn from the focus groups, we gained valuable insights about what could be popular topics of future green communication campaigns and which topics are harder to communicate about:
• The focus of green communication should be on addressing industrial and household air pollution and promoting policies for improved waste management and recycling. The emphasis should be on preserving human health and connecting climate policies to the real-life experiences of people.
• It is worth promoting policies that ready individuals for the green transition, rather than highlighting negative consequences or penalties imposed on industries or consumers.
• Green communication should steer clear of policies that place a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility and that might be perceived as hostile to drivers.
• Communication about the energy crisis is challenging as some individuals in industrial cities view pollution’s adverse impact on health as a necessary trade-off for economic growth and job creation. It is advisable to highlight the significance and advantages of using renewable, clean energy sources instead of criticizing the fossil fuel industry and coal and gas.
• The general public is not well-informed or even misinformed about green policies, technologies, and local pollution. To raise awareness and interest in these issues among the Hungarian society, educational material on topics such as electromobility, fuel consumption of cars, selective waste collection, green renovation programs and the harmful effects of fossil fuels and nuclear energy can be helpful. Future campaigns should also aim to bring attention to local pollution.
In our research, we also tested various approaches to communicating green issues. We formulated messages based on four different communication frames for each set of policy proposals. These frames highlighted the economic benefits of green measures, their positive impact on quality of life, the harm caused by pollution and climate change and the responsibility of elites. Although all kinds of frames had their merits and limitations, it became clear which ones are the most and least effective.
The focus of future green campaigns should be on messages that highlight the improvement of quality of life. This type of framing has been found to be the least divisive and widely acceptable to various target groups. While stressing the importance of a liveable future and saving the planet is important, it is crucial to present achievable goals and concrete solutions for the near future.
• Highlighting economic benefits can be an effective frame for communication about energy-related policies. In the Hungarian context, general messages about "new green jobs" may be perceived as too vague or empty promises.
• Highlighting the harm caused by environmental pollution and climate change can play a crucial role in green communication, but it is essential to focus on threats that directly impact people (e.g. air pollution, plastic pollution). Long-term and abstract threats are less effective communication tools. Participants in our study who were older or raising children were more receptive to messages about the health hazards of environmental pollution.
• Anti-elite framing in green communication has been found to be the least effective. Messages that emphasize the responsibility of politicians and regulators or suggest the possibility of positive change, work better. However, anti-elite framing is widely refused when it calls for a fight against elites or creates negative portrayals of big businesses and wealthy individuals. Our analysis suggests that older individuals living in smaller cities are more responsive to anti-elitist messages.
In conclusion, this study gained important lessons for effective green communication in building support for green policies in Hungary. Our findings suggest that messages that highlight the importance of a liveable future and quality of life, point out the economic benefits for energy-related policies and emphasize the harm caused by pollution and climate change (with a focus on air pollution and microplastics) are the most effective. On the other hand, anti-elite framing in green communication, as well as policies and messages considered to be ′anti-poor′ or ′anti-car′ (involving bans and fines) may not be well received. Although our results are based on research in Hungary, these lessons can be valuable for the wider context too. Policymakers and politicians should take these findings into account when developing green communication strategies and campaigns to engage the general public and build support for environmentally sustainable policies.
Authors: András Bíró-Nagy, Réka Hunyadi, Vanessza Juhász, Áron Szászi
The study has been published in collaboration with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
Policy Solutions is a progressive political research institute based in Budapest. It was founded in 2008 and it is committed to the values of liberal democracy, solidarity, equal opportunity, sustainability and European integration. The focus of Policy Solutions’ work is on understanding political processes in Hungary and the European Union. Among the pre-eminent areas of our research are the investigation of how the quality of democracy evolves, the analysis of factors driving euroscepticism, populism and the far-right, and election research.
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