Executive summary

In the past decade, greenhouse gases and air pollutant emissions, municipal waste generation, energy and material consumption, and water abstractions decreased. However, Belgium’s performance remains insufficient to halt biodiversity loss and to alleviate the growing pressures of demographic development, urbanisation and intensive agricultural practices.

Local air pollution, especially from transport and heating, remains a health concern. Belgium equalised diesel and petrol taxes and Antwerp, the Brussels-Capital Region and Ghent introduced low emission zones. Varying the road distance charge by space and time and removing the favourable tax treatment of company cars would help address air pollution and congestion costs of road transport.

Belgium is far from achieving good status for water bodies. High use of nutrients and pesticides in agriculture is the most important source of pollution. The country needs to identify and assess key measures for achieving water quality objectives. It has the opportunity to strengthen water management objectives under the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy.

The National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) and the Long-term Strategy outline contributions of the federal authority and the regions to climate targets of the European Union (EU). However, the fragmentation of competences and lack of an independent co-ordinating body hamper the development of a shared long-term vision and implementation of coherent policies. An internal burden-sharing agreement on the 2030 objective remains to be adopted.

Oil, gas and nuclear dominate the energy mix. Belgium is not on track to meet its 2020 targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. NECP projections indicate that 2020 and 2030 climate targets are within reach. However, further efforts will be needed to meet the more stringent targets adopted by the European Union for 2030 to achieve climate neutrality.

Institutional and procedural differences in policy implementation between Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region create an unlevel playing field for businesses. Each region plans and implements its own policy in several domains with cross-border issues. Several co-ordination mechanisms between the federal and regional governments, as well as across the regions, help them adopt common positions on Belgium’s international commitments and to exchange good practices. However, this co-ordination needs to be more effective in several areas, such as climate change, water resources management, and waste management and circular economy.

Environmental authorities are paying growing attention to promotion of compliance and green business practices. Compliance monitoring is planned to a large degree based on systematic assessment of environmental risk posed by economic entities. The number of inspections has been stable in the three regions over recent years despite resource constraints. The efficiency of inspection work has also increased in recent years due to the digitalisation of many procedures and better performance management. The use of administrative fines has recently increased. However, additional efforts are needed to deter non-compliance, which remains significant. Belgian regions should continue to reduce non-compliance by expanding application of administrative fines that can be imposed without prosecution and by improving collection of monetary penalties.

Belgium has a strong institutional set-up for sustainable development but needs to reinvigorate related inter-federal co-operation and improve coherence between energy and climate, transport and fiscal policies. As the COVID-19 emergency passes, the federal and regional governments should develop a co-ordinated recovery plan with ambitious climate and environmental targets.

The country can build on the National Pact for Strategic Investment and the NECP to set priorities. Phasing out nuclear energy by 2025 requires major investment in power generation, cross-border interconnections, smart grids, storage and demand response. The housing stock is old and among the least efficient in Europe. Belgium should follow up on the National Debate on Carbon Pricing to implement a carbon tax in sectors not covered by the EU Emissions Trading System and phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Increased revenue could help fund low-carbon infrastructure and support vulnerable households. Federated entities can make renewable energy policies more cost-effective and have yet to develop a common vision of mobility to shift from roads to rail and active modes. Cost-benefit analysis of public investment projects should be systematic.

Belgium has many endangered species and the situation has worsened over the past decade. The proportion of habitats of community interest in a favourable state of conservation is low. Land take, landscape fragmentation and intensive agriculture are the main causes. Belgium will have to align its biodiversity policy objectives with the more ambitious objectives of the new EU strategy for biodiversity by 2030. Given the extent of built-up areas in Belgium compared to other OECD members, the objective of strict protection of 10% of land and coastal waters will be difficult to achieve.

Regions have taken spatial planning policy measures to stop land taking by 2040. The confinement linked to the COVID-19 crisis recalled the importance of access to nature for the well-being of the population. The regions have set new ambitious targets for access to green spaces in urban areas, but the instruments to finance them are not yet in place. In rural areas, Belgium must seize the opportunity offered by the reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy post-2020 to set biodiversity targets in agriculture. Belgium has taken steps to prevent the introduction of invasive alien species and illegal imports of timber. However, more is needed to control imports of threatened exotic species and imported deforestation through supply chains, which increase the risk of wildlife-human contact in the tropics and, with it, the risk of a pandemic.

Regions have used effective mixes of policy instruments to achieve and maintain high levels of incineration, recycling and composting for municipal solid waste and eliminating nearly all landfilling. Belgium has achieved an absolute decoupling of municipal waste generation from economic and population growth. Some extended producer responsibility schemes, including for packaging waste, have been effective in collecting and recovering their waste streams. The regions have established programmes to address contaminated sites. They have also worked closely with private enterprise and other stakeholders on ambitious policies for the transition to the circular economy. These initiatives have addressed key sectors, in particular construction and the food chain, as well as cross-cutting actions such as circular purchasing in both enterprises and government.

Performance in municipal waste management varies across the regions. Overall, Belgium will need to further improve municipal waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting to meet domestic and EU targets. The performance of some extended producer responsibility schemes, such as those for waste electrical and electronic equipment and for end-of-life vehicles, needs to be improved. Belgium will have to turn existing and planned initiatives on the circular economy into stronger results, including reductions in material consumption, and material and carbon footprints. To ensure that policy actions are effective and efficient, the regions and the federal government should continue to strengthen co-ordination.


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