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ClientEarth Communications

24th October 2022

Air pollution

Belgium has dirty air too – and its citizens are fighting for better

Is there a right to clean air? According to lawyers, and an increasing number of affected people across Europe, there is. The UN recently recognised that everyone has a right to a healthy environment. If this is true, then it should also mean that everyone has the right to breathe clean and healthy air.

This is what Belgians believe, as a group of residents across all three regions in Belgium are taking their authorities to court to defend their right to breathe healthy air.

Growing momentum to breathe healthy air?

The nine Belgians follow in the footsteps of German citizens from Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, who took the Federal government to court over the same issue last month.

The credibility of air pollution law in Europe has recently been made obsolete by fresh scientific recommendations from global experts at the World Health Organization (WHO). EU limits for dangerous air pollutants are now woefully outdated – the levels scientists believe to be acceptable has plummeted by about 75% in some cases.

Individual EU countries’ authorities have not responded to this update – waiting instead for an overhaul of the central EU legislation on air pollution, which will take several years to have any effect. In the meantime, citizens will have to keep breathing dirty air at the expense of their health, on governments’ watch.

Like citizens in Germany, Belgians have decided not to wait – they’re taking the matter to court.

They are demanding that the authorities tighten air quality laws in light of the latest science to protect them and their families from dangerous pollution.

They want the courts to recognise that we all have a specific right to breathe healthy air, and we shouldn’t have to upend our lives to find it.

Denis, a claimant from Charleroi, in Belgium, who suffers with asthma says: “I’m taking action because I want to continue to live in the city centre of my hometown – not be forced to move somewhere less polluted to protect my health.

“I believe that breathing healthy air is a fundamental right, as is the right to a stable climate, for example. Governments are clearly not doing enough and we are collectively paying the price. They must act now.”

ClientEarth is supporting the cases in Belgium and in Germany.

When does air become toxic?

When you step outside your front door, your first thought should not be whether inhaling is going to be detrimental to your health. But According to the European Environment Agency, there is practically no urban-dwelling European citizen who is not breathing air that the WHO would consider dangerous for their health. Shockingly, air pollution continues to be the main environmental risk factor for human health in Europe.

For Sim, a claimant from Antwerp, the impact of air pollution on his family is particularly concerning.

“As a father, I fear for the health of my family. We live next to one of the most polluted streets in Antwerp, which means my children are exposed to dangerous pollution that will likely impact them for the rest of their lives.

“I want my children to grow up in a healthy environment and not suffer the consequences of a lack of political will. The government has a duty to protect us and our children today as well as future generations.”

Air pollution can be linked to asthma attacks, cancers and heart attacks and strokes with an increasing number of studies showing how it can also affect other parts of our bodies and even foetuses.

Though we know in increasing detail the extent to which air pollution impacts our health, it’s historically been hard to trace a causal link between pollution and serious disease or death. This changed in 2021, when a UK coroner confirmed that air pollution was the official cause of death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah.

What’s the air pollution situation in Belgium?

In Belgium, by leaving air pollution laws unchanged, the Belgian authorities are failing to take steps to reduce levels of air pollution that are up to four times higher than what the WHO has deemed is acceptable to breathe.

Despite these figures, the three regional authorities in Belgium are taking very different approaches to tackling health crisis.

That’s why the group of Belgian residents are suing all three regions because air pollution does not stop at regional borders – it can only be tackled by taking a coordinated national approach.

“Stronger air pollution laws are the cornerstone of nationwide action. That is only possible if the Belgian authorities work together to protect people’s health – a piecemeal approach will only continue to leave people exposed to dirty air.” – Irmina Kotiuk, ClientEarth lawyer

A human rights breakthrough waiting to happen?

The EU is due to release a proposal for its updated principle air quality law this week – however, the publication of the proposal is only the first step of a legislative process that will take years to finalise. Once agreed, the transposition and implementation process means EU Member States may not be obliged to comply with new limits for several years.

In the meantime, countries have started being fined for breaching air pollution limits and we may see people being able to sue their governments for financial compensation from air pollution damage in the future. The science shows that governments are not doing enough to protect our health and people will no longer stand for it.

Our lawyer Irmina says: "We know that new air quality thresholds will take years to agree and even longer to implement. EU citizens’ health is at risk now. Their right to breathe clean and healthy air is valid today and leaders need to uphold it.”

We all have a right to breathe clean and healthy air – these cases may help make it indisputable.