Residents across Belgium are taking legal action against their regional governments, demanding that they uphold their right to breathe clean and healthy air.
The legal action comes just weeks after seven citizens launched a similar case in Germany, and just days before the European Commission is due to unveil its proposal for the revision of the EU’s principal air quality law, the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD), which sets air quality thresholds for all 27 Member States.
The case seeks to have the Belgian courts recognise people’s right to clean and healthy air. Like Germany, Belgian authorities have failed to take action after the World Health Organization (WHO) – the world’s leading authority on air pollution and health – slashed recommended limits in its air quality guidelines last year by 75% in some cases.
By leaving air pollution laws unchanged, the Belgian authorities are exposing people to levels of air pollution that are up to four times higher than scientists have deemed is acceptable to breathe.
The nine claimants – most of whom suffer from respiratory health issues – together with environmental lawyers at ClientEarth, are demanding that the authorities tighten air quality laws in light of the latest science to protect them and their families from dangerous pollution.
The claimants say that failing to act breaches their fundamental right to breathe clean and healthy air and puts their and their children’s health at unnecessary risk.
Denis, a claimant from Charleroi, said: “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 have adapted my behaviour to minimise the risks to my health. But the science shows that authorities are doing too little to protect their citizens, especially for someone like me who suffers from asthma.
“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.”
According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is the main environmental risk factor for human health in Europe. It 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.
Claimant Sim, from Antwerp, said: “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.”
The three regional authorities are being sued in the Brussels Civil Court as the claimants argue that air pollution does not stop at regional borders and therefore tackling this health crisis requires a coordinated national approach.
ClientEarth fundamental rights lawyer Irmina Kotiuk said: “Clean and healthy air is a fundamental right so the Belgian authorities should be doing everything in their power to make sure their laws are fit to protect citizens from breathing air pollution that scientists now know seriously endangers people’s health.
“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.”
The EU is due to release a proposal for its updated AAQD 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.
Kotiuk added: “EU countries can’t use the European Commission’s decision to review the bloc’s air quality laws as an excuse not to take prompt action themselves. 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.”