Belgian environmental performance panned

OECD report finds large "environmental debt," growing efforts to redress past "neglect"

Belgium faces tough environmental problems, according to an unusually hard-hitting review of national environmental performance by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The latest in the Paris-based organisation's series of peer reviews of OECD member states, the report concludes that the state of the Belgian environment is "uneven" overall and "worrisome" in specific areas, such as water quality. Though efforts to address key problems have been strengthened in recent years, the OECD says, a lot more remains to be done.

Water management presents a key challenge according to the report. The country's high population density, strong industrialisation and very intensive agriculture combine to place strong pressure on water resources.

"Only limited headway" has been made in containing pressures from agriculture, while the introduction of modern waste water treatment is "among the lowest in the OECD". As a result, implementation of EU directives concerning pollution of water by nitrates and treatment of urban waste water is "a major challenge in both political and financial terms," the report concludes.

Growing transport pressures are another major obstacle to the achievement of sustainable development, according to the OECD. Road traffic is growing faster than gross domestic product, leading to growing emissions of nitrogen oxides. Concentrations of fine particulates in urban areas are also a problem, and reflect a trend towards diesel-powered cars, which is encouraged by a fuel taxation system that favours diesel over petrol.

The sombre message of a serious challenge remaining to be met continues in other conclusions reached in the report. Belgian waste production has yet to stabilise and energy consumption continues to increase. A national target of stabilising emissions of carbon dioxide by 2000 will not be met, while environmental considerations have frequently not been part of local planning decisions.. Meanwhile, the area of land with protected status "remains small, fragmented and unrepresentative of the main ecosystem types," some 80% of wetlands have been lost and coastal waters are threatened by eutrophication.

Bright spots are also apparent, according to the OECD. In terms of Belgium's management of environmental issues, the report notes that a major institutional reform has been implemented, as a result of which "a modern environmental legislative framework is in place". The OECD also praises Belgium's early introduction of economic instruments such as ecotaxes into its environmental policies.

Significant environmental improvements have also been achieved in some areas. For example, a 1991 voluntary agreement with the Belgian electricity industry led to large cuts in emissions of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides. Belgium's large chemical industry has also succeeded in reducing emissions.

Follow Up:
OECD, tel: +33 1 45 24 82 00. References: "OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Belgium".

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