Brussels air quality improves: decade of progress in pollution reduction

Sarhan Basem
credit: brusselstimes

Brussels (Brussels Morning) – Air pollution in Brussels has dropped significantly in the past decade, caused by a wide spectrum of efforts and developments. 

The capital region is one of the most contaminated cities in Europe, leading to hundreds of early deaths and decreased life expectancy, as well as carrying important economic costs for society. Yet the quality of air across the Brussels-Capital Region has enhanced greatly since 2013 and over the last 10 years. 

What factors contributed to the significant drop in NO2 emissions?

In the last five years, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) engagements – one of the pollutants with the most elevated documented effect on human health – decreased significantly, by 40%.

“In the Brussels Region, half of the NO2 emissions come from road transportation, and especially from diesel automobiles, which emit much more nitrogen oxide than other vehicles (petrol, gas, electric),” Olivier Brasseur, a Brussels Environment Air Quality expert said. This indicates the drop in emissions can mainly be explained by the reality that road traffic pollution has declined significantly.

Brasseur cited this is due to technological advances in vehicles, which have seen them become slightly polluting; changes in the arrangement of the vehicle fleet, with diesel cars evolving outnumbered by less-polluting automobiles due to higher fuel prices; and the Low Emission Zones (LEZ), presented in 2018 throughout Brussels, progressively destroying the most polluting automobiles and assuring residents breath cleaner air.

Are European air quality targets being met in Brussels?

These factors integrated have resulted in all European limitation values and 2023 targets being fulfilled in Brussels. The dimensions of air pollutants carried out in 2023 at the 11 monitoring groups of the Brussels telemetry network offered annual concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sufficient particles (PM10 and PM2.5), the pollutants most liable for premature deaths and illnesses varying from cardiovascular diseases to asthma, reduced by about 10% between 2022 and last year.

The target value for ozone (O3) formed by Europe was respected in 2023 in Brussels, but the daily value suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is more stringent than the current European limitation, was not respected at any position in the region.

For sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), the results were very promising: the current values have been broadly respected in Brussels for 10 years, while the values suggested by the WHO are also respected in 2023, as are the suggested European limits for 2030.

Black carbon concentrations (BC) declined sharply in recent years, however, Brussels Environment highlighted this pollutant is not controlled by Europe, while the WHO does not provide suggested values. As about 50% of citizens’ health relies on their environment, including air quality, Brasseur greeted the very important evolution that has been registered when it comes to ensuring Brussels residents are living in cleaner air. However, he emphasised that the work does not stop there.

What are the remaining challenges in improving air quality?

Now the existing European values are respected in many areas, the new challenge is to reach the new European values for 2030 (for PM2.5 and NO2, for instance, the annual limitation values are to be more than split from 25 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ and from 40 µg/m³ to 20 µg/m³ respectively, as well as the values suggested by the WHO, which are still mostly being exceeded “by a wide margin”.

Compliance with the values guided by the WHO will require further declines in emissions at a local level, especially in the transport sector, but also severe reductions at the European and even hemispheric level.

“We must persist to push to stay under these lower limits,” Brasseur stated, adding that a critical part of attaining this goal will be supporting the LEZ and pushing forward with planned restrictions – firstly, Euro-5 diesel, Euro-2 petrol vehicles and Euro-3 motorcycles will be banned from entering the region from 2025.

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Sarhan Basem is Brussels Morning's Senior Correspondent to the European Parliament. With a Bachelor's degree in English Literature, Sarhan brings a unique blend of linguistic finesse and analytical prowess to his reporting. Specializing in foreign affairs, human rights, civil liberties, and security issues, he delves deep into the intricacies of global politics to provide insightful commentary and in-depth coverage. Beyond the world of journalism, Sarhan is an avid traveler, exploring new cultures and cuisines, and enjoys unwinding with a good book or indulging in outdoor adventures whenever possible.