Belgium country briefing - The European environment — state and outlook 2015

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
9 min read

Main themes and sectors addressed in the national State of Environment report

Due to the Belgian constitutional setup, environmental competences are mainly dealt with at the regional level, with the federal level taking care of various specific issues such as marine. All main areas/sectors/themes are addressed in the State of the Environment (SOE) reports elaborated independently by the different actors (three regions and at the federal level) based on their respective legal basis. For some themes, such as air or climate, collaboration takes place between the actors resulting in integrated Belgian reports.

Key findings of the State of Environment report 

The Belgian annual air quality[1] report indicates significant improvement over recent decades, but also shows that a high percentage of the Belgian population is still exposed to excessive concentrations of the four most important air pollutants (PM, NO2, O3 and SO2).

The downward overall trend of the minimum, average and maximum levels of nearly all indicators continued in 2011 though a number of indicators show a stagnating trend. However, Belgium still exceeds the European limits or target values for the number of exceedances of the PM10 daily limit value, the number of days with maximum 8-hour mean ozone concentration > 120 μg/m³ (and the accumulated excess or AOT60), the ozone AOT40 for forests, and the annual mean NO2 concentration. Comparing the values with the more stringent and health-related WHO guideline values, indicate that almost all pollutants (and associated indicators) are still in exceedance (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Exposure of the population to annual mean PM10 concentrations, 1997-2011

Figure 1: Evolution of the exposure of the population to annual mean PM10 concentrations (Belgium, 1997-2011)

SourceIRCEL-CELINE: Annual report Air Quality in Belgium 2011[1]

In the Brussels Capital Region[2] energy consumption decreased by 18% between 2004 and 2011 despite population growth (12%). Major efforts in terms of urban wastewater treatment and the implementation of a “blue network” programme improved the quality of surface water. 

In spite of the urban character of the region (7 155 inh./km2), nature is well represented, with 54% of the area covered in green spaces and 14% benefiting from the Natura2000 status. Problems have nevertheless been observed: a shortage of green spaces in dense urban areas, connectivity and quality of the natural habitats often insufficient, regional forest management needs to adapt in particular to deal with climate change, rarity of open habitats. Other classical environmental challenges may also be quoted: soil contamination, noise pollution, waste production and recycling, indoor and outdoor air quality.

In Flanders[3] structural changes and improved energy efficiency delivered a significant reduction in the energy intensity of Flanders between 2003 and 2009. The economic crisis of 2008-2009 slowed this trend but due to a mild winter and lower non-nuclear power production, 2011 again saw a generally downward trend. Nevertheless, the gross domestic energy consumption (GDEC) in 2011 was still 1% above the level for 2000. 

The pollutant load of domestic origin in Flemish surface water decreased further in the period 2000-2011 because of the systematic expansion and improvement of the public wastewater treatment network. The load on the surface water from companies fell noticeably but there has been no further reduction in recent years. The nitrogen and phosphorus losses from agriculture were lower in 2011 than in the early 2000s, but the reduction is less pronounced than for households and companies.

Since the 1990s, atmospheric emissions of various pollutants have decreased significantly in Wallonia[4] leading to an overall improvement in air quality, even if pollution peaks are still observed occasionally. This decrease is mainly due to a reduction in energy requirement and the growth of renewable sources (fivefold between 1990 and 2010). It allows Wallonia to broadly meet the targets set by European legislation and various international protocols. As water quality is concerned, it is estimated that 49% of surface water bodies and 30% of groundwater bodies in Wallonia will not achieve good status by 2015, despite major efforts. Additional measures must be implemented in the next River Basin Management Plan in order to promote further improvements.

Some 70% of agricultural land is showing signs of deficiencies in organic matter, having some consequences on soil's resistance to erosion. Soil pollution from local sources (2-10 potentially contaminated sites/10 km2), mainly associated with Wallonia's industrial past, has received focus.

At the Federal[5] level, a recent report described the environmental impact of federal administrations activities (2009-2012). Results included: development of indicators to monitor Marine Strategy Framework Directive; achievement of the European target of 130g CO2/km emissions for new cars, but still with a big share of diesel engines, contributing to the degradation of air quality; actions to increase sustainability visible through EMAS compliance, green public purchases, ISO 14001 compliance; increase of environmental market surveillance especially through a better knowledge of the products and quantity sold.

Main policy responses to key environmental challenges and concerns 

Besides traditional environmental challenges, the Brussels-Capital Region also looks at specific urban issues such as indoor air quality, sustainability of housing/buildings/neighbourhoods, improved quantitative and qualitative offer of green and blue spaces. The various policies work through:

  • environmental planning[6]: nature, noise, waste, water/flood risk, air-climate-energy, pollution peaks, energy efficiency, mobility, but also horizontal planning such as the regional sustainable development plan[7];
  • regulations and control: including contaminated soil, electromagnetic waves, energy efficiency in buildings[8];
  • economic incentives: including premiums and subsidies linked to energy savings and management of contaminated soil for individuals and professionals[9];
  • information, awareness-raising, support, participation tools.

Flanders is facing major societal challenges: climate change, limited availability of space, biodiversity loss and scarcity of fossil fuels and raw materials. Policy initiatives include Flanders in action,[10] Pact 2020,[11] Flemish Strategy for Sustainable Development[12]. They state that transition towards sustainability is needed to tackle these challenges.

An environmental policy plan is drawn up every five years based on the environment and nature reports. Flanders aims to belong to the top five European regions when it comes to sustainable materials management. To achieve this, the Flanders' Materials Programme[13] was launched in 2012. Government, industry, centers of expertise and civil society are joining forces. 

Wallonia works on the transition towards a low carbon in 2050 and a more efficient use of resources. The region relies on various drivers:

  • Marshall Plan[14] followed by the Marshall Plan 4.0: priority action plans  including new policy orientations integrating sustainable development, circular economy and energy transition;
  • environmental planning (Waste prevention and Waste management plan for 2020[15]; Walloon Plan for Sustainable use of energy (2003, 2009)[16]; Climate Decree[17]; Plan for a Sustainable Management of Walloon Forests; River Basin Management Plans[18]; Walloon Pesticide Reduction Programme[19]; Sustainable Management Programme for Nitrogen in Agriculture[20];
  • regulatory instruments and control (Decree of 05/06/2008 on punishing breaches of environmental legislation);
  • economic support for voluntary approaches (agri-environmental measures, river contracts, branch agreements) or obligatory (waste reduction, container parks, Natura 2000 subsidisation);
  • Information and awareness-raising tools: Centres Régionaux d'Initiation à l'Environnement (CRIE).

The Federal policy response implies intense collaboration with actors and stakeholders to insure coherence, complementarity and mainstreaming. Public services have a role to play in organising markets for products and services in line with environment protection and in reforming taxation and harmful subsidies.

Resource efficiency, air quality, environment and health assessment and management of new technologies, climate change, economic valuation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, responsible management of the North sea, further enforcement of legislation, will be addressed as part of a long term, resource efficient and low carbon transition. The following are being prepared:

  • implementation the 2020 climate change and energy package;
  • a national low carbon development strategy;
  • a federal adaptation plan;
  • the third federal plan on sustainable development.

Country specific issues 

Faced with a high unemployment rate and demographic growth, the Brussels urban project includes a job-creation policy linked to the environment, based on the mobilisation of public and private players and associations around planned actions:

  • Employment-Environment Alliance[21]: pursues objectives to stimulate sectors, research, innovation and economic transition.
  • Brussels Sustainable Economy[22]: development of six economic sectors linked to the environment, within a priority intervention area. 

Innovative and proactive policies are also being conducted in other domains such as management of contaminated soil and electromagnetic waves, or improvement in energy and environmental performance in buildings. Based on the tax revenues for the period 1995 to 2010, Flanders shows signs of a 'de-greening' of the tax system[23]. The share of environmentally related taxes in GDP fell from 2.4% in 1995 to 2.0% in 2010. In 2005 their share peaked with 2.5%. The share of labour taxes in GDP fell slightly from 24.3% in 1995 to 24.0% in 2010. Compared with the EU-27, Flanders has high labour taxes and low environmentally related taxes.

The environmental performance of the new Flemish vehicle fleet[24] improved during the period 2008-2012. In 2011, encouraged by federal incentives, the 2015 target for CO2 emissions from new passenger cars was already achieved. However, the subsidies also encourage the purchase of diesel vehicles. In March 2012, Flanders took a first step by reforming the traffic registration tax taking into account the emissions of both CO2 and other pollutants.

Wallonia faces major energy and environmental challenges. Some policies to highlight:

  • The Marshall Plan 4.0[25] refocuses the priorities of this economic restructuring program initiated ten years ago around the digital economy and circular economy (ecological transition of the economy by reducing consumption and use of raw materials as well as through recycling and waste recovery);
  • the Decree for the Walloon strategy of sustainable development[26] adopted in June 2013 defines the long-term strategic vision for sustainable development. Three key issues are identified: energetic transition, restoration and protection of biodiversity, climate change. Action plans focus on sectorial objectives as production and consumption patterns, food, health and two transversal themes: energy and mobility;
  • the Regional Spatial Development Perspective (RSDP)[27] proposes a vision for 2040 for the Walloon territory to address demographic, social, economic, energy and climate challenges.

The Federal environment reports[28] addressed four main policies: impacts of climate change, products and substances standards, the protection of biodiversity (North Sea) and efficient use of resources. Tax leverage and product standards were identified as crucial instruments. The 2013 indicator report showed progress since the first report but also highlighted the need for better cooperation between institutions. The Belgian government also adopted in 2013 the federal long-term strategic vision for sustainable development[29] to guide the transition of society and is preparing for the development of a Low Carbon Development Strategy.


[1] Belgian annual air quality report

[2] A detailed Report on the state of the environment must be published every 4 years and a synthetic report every 2 years. The latest detailed report has been published in 2013(2007-2010), a new synthetic report (2011-2012) in 2014.

[3] Environmental indicators are updated on a regular base on the website (with a selection of indicators translated in English). A second scenario report  Environment Outlook 2030[2]  and Nature Outlook 2009[2] was published in 2009. In 2014 a policy relevant report with the impact of megatrends on the environment.

[4] Drafting an annual report on the state of the Walloon environment
(dashboard) has been an obligation, instituted by decree, since 1987. Every
5 years, the dashboard is completed by a more exhaustive analytical report:

[5] Every 4 years (since 2010) a report is produced. The first edition of the federal environmental indicators report was launched in 2013.

[6] Brussels-Capital Region Environmental planning (fr-nl)

[7] Brussels-Capital Region regional sustainable development plan (fr-nl)

[8] Brussels-Capital Region regulations and control: contaminated soil (fr-nl), electromagnetic waves (fr-nl), energy efficiency in buildings (fr-nl)

[9] Brussels-Capital Region economic incentives: individuals, professionals (fr-nl);

[10] Flanders in action

[11] Pact 2020

[12] Flemish Strategy for Sustainable Development

[13] Flanders' Materials Programme

[14] Marshall Plan

[15] Walloon Waste prevention and Waste management plan for 2020

[16] Walloon Plan for Sustainable use of energy (2003, 2009)

[17] Walloon Climate Decree

[18] River Basin Management Plans

[19] Walloon Pesticide Reduction Programme

[20] Sustainable Management Programme for Nitrogen in Agriculture

[21] Employment-Environment Alliance (fr-nl)

[22] Brussels Sustainable Economy (fr-nl)

[23] New MIRA study report: Are there signs of a greening tax system in Flanders? (2013)

[24] CO2 emissions of new vehicle fleet (nl)

[25] Plan Marshall 4.0

[26] Decree for the Walloon strategy of sustainable development, June 2013

[27] Regional Spatial Development Perspective (RSDP)

[28] These environment federal reports are elaborated in complementarity with the federal reports on sustainable development which also include a series of indicators.

[29] Federal long-term strategic vision for sustainable development, 2013



The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.


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