Brussels locals urge lawmakers to clean up city’s air


An action group made up of Brussels residents is calling on the city administration to address the capital’s air pollution problem

Breathing space

In June, the European Commission summoned Belgium before the European Court of Justice to explain why it had been failing to adhere to European air quality norms in recent years. The European Commission judged that not enough efforts were being made to improve air quality in problem areas like the Brussels-Capital Region, the Ghent port neighbourhood and the area around Roeselare’s port.

For Lies Craeynest and a handful other Brusselaars, this chastisement from the European Commission was the last straw. CleanAirBXL, a new initiative that calls on the municipal administration to take action against the poor air quality in the Brussels-Capital Region, was born. This summer, its online petition garnered 3,000 signatures over the space of two weeks.

A driving factor in the establishment of the new citizens’ platform were locals’ concerns about the impact of air pollution on their children’s health. “Many of the founders are parents who fear their children might get respiratory problems, as children’s developing lungs are very sensitive to air pollution,” explains Craeynest, who lives in the city’s Elsene commune. “Many parents don’t take any chances and actually leave Brussels.”

Craeynest is a concerned parent herself and works as an EU policy advisor on climate change and global food security for Oxfam.

But children aren’t the only victims of the capital’s deplorable air quality. According to CleanAirBXL, many adults also suffer from asthma and other respiratory conditions, while studies have shown that repeated exposure to air pollution causes cancer. “There are at least 632 premature deaths per year in Brussels because of air pollution,” says Craeynest.  

Praise and criticism

The number-one pollution culprits are the fine dust particles and nitrogen dioxide that float through the Brussels’ air. “The biggest cause of this pollution is Brussels’s well-known mobility problem,” says Craeynest.

According to a recent report from Inrix, a US company that specialises in road traffic information, Brussels is the most congested city in Europe after London.

The problem is that the government doesn’t set priorities, a budget or a deadline

- CleanAirBXL co-founder Lies Craeynest

Meanwhile, Brussels lawmakers have slowly begun to wake up to the air pollution problem and started taking corresponding measures. Last March, the European Environmental Bureau praised Brussels for its expansion of the local public transport network and its efforts to promote cycling in a report evaluating cities’ policies to combat air pollution.

At the same, in its ranking for best practices for clean air in transport, Brussels ranked 14th out of 23 European cities. In 2011, it ranked much better, in eighth place. According to CleanAirBXL, the lack of measures to reduce car emissions is to blame for the downgrade. “Brussels is lagging behind in this respect,” Craeynest says. 

A 30% decrease

CleanAirBXL’s petition focuses on the city’s Air-Climate-Energy plan, which the Brussels parliament will vote on at the start of November. With this plan, the government wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2025.

Approximately half of the plan’s 59 measures aim to combat air pollution. The city will present its plans before attendees at the United Nations’ annual climate conference, which will kick off in Paris in late November.

“We actually agree with the measures proposed in the plan, but the problem is that the government doesn’t set priorities, a budget and a deadline,” Craeynest says. “It’s important to set concrete goals and to make sure that ambitions aren’t impeded because of ideological or economic motives.”

To this end, CleanAirBXL has outlined five priorities. First, the government should introduce a road-fee system and tax owners of polluting cars more heavily. “Diesel cars in particular emit a lot of harmful nitrogen dioxide,” she says. “Many company cars, which account for a large number of the cars in Brussels, run on diesel.”

The group also wants the city to further improve public transport and to support alternative transport initiatives like car-sharing. “MIVB’s recent purchase of about 100 diesel-powered buses was a very bad move in this respect,” says Craeynest, referring to Brussels’ public transport authority. “The government should set a good example.”

Smart measures

CleanAirBXL is also calling for the adoption of intelligent systems, which it says could significantly ease traffic. “Many drivers, for example, spend a lot of time looking for a parking spot,” says Craeynest. “With better signage leading them to parking lots, a lot of gas emissions could be avoided.”

Finally, the group wants lawmakers to do a better job of informing citizens, through a website or app, for instance. “People should know in real-time and in detail where air quality in Brussels is the worst and how bad it is,” she says.

In Craeynest’s view, more measuring stations are needed, particularly in the “street canyons” – narrow streets with tall, continuous buildings on both sides of the road. “People should be more aware that the risk of air pollution damaging their health is higher in these street canyons,” she explains.

CleanAirBXL plans on taking further action to put pressure on the Brussels government, including through a campaign during the Week of the Mobility, which will take place later this month.

Photo by Eric Danhier/ Visit Brussels

Traffic in Flanders

Thousands of commuters and foreigners pass through Brussels and Flanders each day, and the two regions have suffered from heavily congested traffic and long and frequent traffic jams for years – with no end seemingly in sight.
Record - According to the 2013 report from traffic information platform Inrix, Brussels and Antwerp have the most traffic congestion of any city in Europe and North America.
Calendar - October is the worst month of the year for traffic jams.
Causes - Year after year, heavy snowfall and railway strikes lead to monster traffic jams. Heavy congestion, infrastructure works and multi-lane accidents cause the more ordinary daily tailbacks.
1 285

largest area covered in traffic ever recorded in Belgium in kilometres


time Antwerp drivers spend in gridlock per year in hours

10 000

traffic diversions in Flanders per year