Brussels air quality tumbles, fails to trigger free transport

Brussels air quality plummeted but not for long enough to activate free public transport. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Fine particle matter in the EU capital’s air exceeded a warning threshold on Thursday (28 February) but did not worsen enough to trigger free public transport. In a separate development, one of the EU’s top lawyers urged governments to put monitoring stations where pollution is highest.

Air quality rules mean that authorities must inform residents when fine particulate matter (PM10) exceeds 50 micrograms per cubic metre, so they can adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Belgium’s Interregional Environmental Unit announced that readings reached 51 g/m3 in Brussels, 60 g/m3 in Wallonia and 63 g/m3 in Flanders. Car emissions, industrial output and burning wood for heating are among the main contributors.

Local people are encouraged to refrain from strenuous outdoor exercise, leave their cars at home and turn their heating down if possible, as PM10 can increase the risk of cancer, allergies and other health problems.

Under new rules adopted by the Brussels regional government last year, prolonged periods of bad pollution and air quality will trigger free public transport as a last resort.

Brussels air pollution to trigger free public transport

Brussels’ regional government has approved emergency rules that will allow commuters to use public transport free of charge during periods of high air pollution, Belgian media reported on Friday (23 February).

Although Thursday’s pollution levels exceeded the threshold of when free transport could be offered, it did not last long enough for the measure to actually be triggered.

A spokesperson for Brussels transport operator STIB told EURACTIV that pollution levels on Thursday only activated the first level of a four-stage emergency measure plan.

In order for free public transport and bike-share schemes to be triggered, there need to be two straight days of bad air quality and forecasts of a further 24 hours of pollution. Rain and wind on Friday meant that pollution levels dispersed and dropped below the 51 g/m3 level.

Court action

On Thursday, a European Court of Justice Advocate General said that national courts should check whether air quality monitoring points are set up in areas where high pollution is prevalent.

It relates to a case brought by Brussels residents and environmental justice group ClientEarth against the Brussels government. The plaintiffs argue that the EU capital’s breach of EU air pollution limits is unacceptable and have asked for legal intervention.

Although just an opinion at this stage, Advocate General Juliane Kokot urged her fellow judges to rule that national courts should be allowed to order authorities to locate sampling stations at certain locations.

Brussels mulls free public transport for all

The new vice-president of the Belgian capital’s transport operator (STIB) has suggested rolling out free public transport for residents during the evening or on weekends. His socialist party has upped the ante and suggested it should be free every day.

Clean air campaigners in Brussels insist that the city does not monitor air quality correctly on the capital’s busiest thoroughfares and that clever accounting on the part of the authorities means negative readings are not reported as they should be.

Often average readings are submitted from across the capital region instead of individual ones, which regularly exceed the limits for pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said “for too long Brussels authorities have failed to comply with the law. They should not be let off the hook by claiming that courts do not have the power to step in.”

A ruling by the full ECJ is expected in the coming months.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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