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Press release: 29 January 2021
A Brussels court has ruled today that the Brussels regional government has breached EU law by failing to correctly monitor and protect the health of its citizens against harmful levels of air pollution. The authorities have been ordered to take immediate action to address the issue.
The judgment, from the Brussels First Instance Tribunal, comes following a legal challenge brought by ClientEarth and five local residents against the regional government in 2016. The ruling is the conclusion of a five-year case.
The court made clear that citizens have the right to go to court to challenge how authorities are monitoring pollution and that the current monitoring network fails to assess the real levels of air pollution in the city.
The court confirmed that there are currently no official sampling points along the key roads in the Brussels-Capital Region, in particular along the Petite Ceinture, Rue de la Loi and the E40 between Avenue Reyers and the border with the Flemish Region.
A lack of monitoring stations along these roads means illegal and harmful levels of pollution in Brussels may well be going undetected.
The Brussels government has been ordered to install one or more monitoring stations along the city’s most polluted arteries within the next six months, or face daily charges.
ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Today’s judgment is a fantastic victory for the residents who brought this case with us and is a testament to their tenacity. They have fought tooth and nail over the past five years so that the people of Brussels can breathe clean air.
“The authorities must take action immediately to come into compliance with the law, by fixing the serious gaps in the city’s monitoring network. As clarified by the judge, any delay in complying with the order would prolong the risk for the health of hundreds of thousands of citizens in Brussels. These new measurements will finally provide an accurate picture of the pollution problem in Brussels and the most effective ways to solve it.
“We hope to now work with the regional government to identify ways to deliver the commitments it made to tackle air pollution when it took office.”
Ahead of the regional elections in 2019, the Environment Minister clearly expressed the need for action to address the lack of monitoring in the main traffic arteries of Brussels. However, despite the authorities announcing several promising initiatives, few concrete measures to fight air pollution have since been implemented.
Brussels was this month ranked among the top 10 cities with the worst health impacts from exposure to air pollution in Europe.
One of the claimants in the case, Lies Craeynest, said: “After five years, I can now breathe easier knowing that our fight for clean air was not in vain. This judgment marks the beginning of real change for our city and pushes the regional government to deliver the promises it made to its voters and create a healthy environment for all its citizens.”
Karin De Schepper, another claimant, added: “We hope that the regional government will accept this outcome and that, starting tomorrow, our authorities will be open to working together with the people of Brussels to identify the best ways to fight air pollution.”
The Brussels regional government has six months to comply with the judgment or else face a penalty of €300 for every day of delay.
The Brussels Regional government has been ordered to pay the legal costs incurred by the claimants.
ClientEarth and the five residents’ legal challenge against the Brussels regional government focuses on nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which in cities comes mostly from diesel vehicles.
The main source of the illegal levels of NO2 in more than 130 cities across the EU are the nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from diesel vehicles. 69% of NOx emissions in Brussels originate from road traffic.
Studies have shown these emissions have adverse effects on human health. Nitrogen dioxide is linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, heart attacks and asthma attacks. It can also lead to low birth weight and stunted lung development in children. An estimate of 68,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2016 were attributable to exposure to NO2 pollution.
According to a new study by Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Brussels is in the top ten cities in Europe with the worst health impacts from exposure to NO2. In Brussels, it is estimated that 530 premature deaths could be avoided every year if the levels of NO2 were similar to cities with the lowest levels of air pollution, such as Tromso in Norway.
Despite air pollution regularly exceeding the legal limits in Brussels since 2010, the regional government has tried to dodge its legal obligation to adopt an air quality plan by using legal technicalities to discount the results from individual monitoring stations that record illegal levels of NO2.
The case launched in September 2016. After an initial court hearing in November 2017, the Court of First Instance of Brussels asked for further guidance from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) – the EU’s highest court – before making a final decision.
Meanwhile, in November 2018, the European Commission sent a 'letter of formal notice' to Belgium for its continuous failure to address illegal levels of air pollution and to properly monitor air quality. The flaws in the Brussels air quality monitoring network have also been highlighted by the European Court of Auditors.
Since then, in 2018, the Brussels regional government announced it would install an additional monitoring station every year until 2026. However, more than two years later, no additional monitoring station has been installed.
The final hearing in the case was held in December. During the hearing, the regional authorities continued to deny the true extent of the pollution problem. The Brussels government argued that its own monitoring stations, which consistently detect high levels of pollution, are unreliable and that no additional action to address the illegal levels of air pollution is needed.
In its ruling today, the Brussels First Instance Tribunal found that the Brussels authorities have not provided any reliable scientific data to justify their choice of monitoring sites in light of the legal requirement to assess air quality in the areas where the highest concentrations are likely to occur.
The court agreed with the evidence provided by the claimants that in Brussels, road traffic is a very important, if not the most important, factor contributing to high levels of NO2 and particles (PM10 and PM2.5) in the air to which the population is exposed. Currently however, there are no official sampling points along the busiest arteries in the Brussels-Capital Region, in particular along the Petite Ceinture, Rue de la Loi and the E40 between Avenue Reyers and the border with the Flemish Region.
The Brussels Regional Government had requested the Tribunal to suspend the enforcement of the ruling until the conclusion of a possible appeal. However, the Tribunal has decided to require immediate compliance and the installation of new monitoring stations within six months (subject to a penalty payment). According to the judge, the court order aims to protect the health of the Brussels citizens. Non-compliance with the court order pending a decision by the court of appeal would create a risk for the health of hundreds of thousands of citizens.
ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.