Belgium lagging behind on environmental performance, says OECD

Belgium has not made the same environmental progress as a number of other OECD countries - "a major effort has begun and will need to be sustained to repay the outstanding environmental debt", according to the OECD's latest environmental performance review.

The results of past environmental management, as evidenced by the current state of the Belgian environment, must be classed as uneven, says the Review. “Whereas air quality on the whole is satisfactory and waste management is generally up-to-date, the state of nature and of many water resources is worrisome.” The OECD attributes much of the backlog to the two decades of institutional reforms leading up to 1993, which transformed the country into a federal state.

Despite its ample rainfall, on a per capita basis Belgium is poor in water resources, and pressures resulting from high population density, industry and very intensive agriculture are correspondingly high. Aquatic biotopes are impoverished, with a shift from long-lived to short-lived fish species and a loss of diversity among vegetation at the water’s edge. “It will be necessary to keep up a large financial effort for quite some time if surface and groundwater quality is to be restored and aquatic ecosystems brought back to health across the country,” says the OECD. The level of urban wastewater treatment, at 28%, is among the lowest in the OECD and the deadlines of the EU wastewater treatment directive will not be met. .

Only limited headway has been made in containing the impact of intensive agriculture: objectives relating to discharge of nitrogen from manure and chemical fertilisers, in particular, are far from being met, and problems with drinking water supply, water quality and nature conservation remain. Groundwater resources are threatened by overabstraction, and show high concentrations of nitrates in agricultural areas.

In order to catch up on this backlog, the challenge is to: achieve and maintain a high level of effort to implement new environmental policies and strengthen environmental infrastructure; further integrate environmental concerns in economic decisions; and meet international environmental commitments.

On the positive side, Belgium has made good progress in introducing many economic instruments, and increasing the levels of taxes and charges on pollution and water abstraction, although the use of ecotaxes to change consumption patterns has met many difficulties in implementation.

National expenditure on pollution control and abatement now amounts to 1.1% of GDP, and the financing of public expenditure by environmental taxes and charges has progressed significantly in recent years. However, expenditure will have to be increased, if domestic objectives and international commitments are to be achieved. This is partly due to limited environmental infrastructure (e.g. wastewater treatment plants, waste management facilities) and limited attention given to nature conservation.

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