Brussels Behind the Scenes: Dust in the wind

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Dust in the wind
Pollution in Brussels. Credit: Belga

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

Weekly analysis and untold stories

With SAM MORGAN

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Dust in the wind

The skies over Brussels were full of something this week. Something other than the swarm of summit helicopters or the lofty promises about helping Ukraine emitted by world leaders. An emblematic stinking cloud of pollution.

You know your city has a bad pollution problem when the authorities make public transport free in an effort to get people out of their cars and onto buses, trams and metros.

You know your city has a really bad pollution problem when the authorities impose a 90km/h motorway speed limit across a country that is infamous for traffic jams and motorists who complain at any minor change to driving rules.

That is exactly what happened this week in Brussels and Belgium, as pollution levels breached the thresholds needed to trigger contingency plans put in place a while ago to combat unhealthy air, which is caused by a number of different factors.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


In Brussels, it is generally a combination of the baseline pollution caused routinely by traffic every day, industrial agriculture spreading fertiliser and particulate matter in the air from a number of sand storms that have swept into Europe from the Sahara desert.

A frankly baffling lack of rainfall also means that all those funky particles are drifting around up in the airways.

This has created a lung-choking fug that places the Belgian capital in the top 20 most polluted cities globally, according to one leading index. Worse than Beijing and Moscow, just a couple of places back from Delhi and Krakow.

Belgium’s poor air is nothing new. A court ruled last year that there were severe failings in the Brussels government’s air quality monitoring and the European Union has launched an infringement procedure against the country.

Offering free public transport is actually a great idea but not for the reasons people claim and it is certainly not a long-term fix.

Cost is not the reason why motorists coming into Brussels are using their cars rather than metros, buses or trams. Network coverage and Belgium’s reality-defying tax perks for company cars are more prominent factors.

After all, as most of us probably know, if you really want to ride for free in Brussels, all you have to do is invade someone’s private space and follow them through a ticket check or know where the big green ‘open the gates’ button is.*

The city’s transport network needs the money generated from ticket sales if services are to at least be maintained at the current levels or, more ideally, improved further. A retrofit of tram line 3 into a metro line will not pay for itself.

But transport provider STIB, whose social media accounts are really quite superb, is on to something by offering free rides during pollution peaks, as it generates awareness and a bit of buzz.

As one twitter user pointed out too, it gives pedestrians and cyclists another transport option to escape the pollution without punishing them for temporarily abandoning their normal commute methods.

*Don't do that.

Tempo time

Reducing speed limits is an all too often forgotten silver bullet against a number of the world’s ills, pollution and needless deaths chief among those.

Indeed, the International Energy Agency lists cutting speed limits by a humble 10km/h at the top of its ten-point plan to cut dependence on Russian oil exports. The list also includes cheaper public transport, car-free days and more working from home where possible.

Before Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine prompted a massive rethink about where Europe sources its energy, legal action linked to the still ongoing climate crisis forced the Dutch government to curb speed limits during certain peak hours.

Germany, which has its own problems with emissions and air quality, is an outlier in Europe, as many stretches of its autobahns do not have a speed limit. In the past, the government has shied away from even considering an upper limit.

This may or may not change in the coming months.

For the moment, Berlin is sticking to fuel tax cuts and shifting its gas suppliers but the figures are not in the government’s favour.

Its own environment agency has calculated that a 130km/h limit would save 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 every year, while a 100km/h limit would drag its output down by a massive 5.4 million tonnes.

Estimating how that would impact oil imports is difficult due to the number of moving parts involved but a 100km/h limit could curb demand from Russian by between 4% and 6%. That is just for Germany, remember. Add in more countries and suddenly it seems a no-brainer.

Germans are likely to grumble and complain about a speed limit, in much the same way that some Brussels motorists grumbled and complained about the 30km/h zone that the city authorities established more than a year ago.

But it is now in place and working well. Early data shows that deaths and injuries are down, with emission cuts sure to follow as well. And the sweetener for car owners? Journey times have not been hurt.

In Poland, where air quality in major cities is regularly a danger to human health, climate groups have targeted that issue as a way to bring down emissions. It provokes an emotional response and is more effective than pictures of sad polar bears.

If you tell parents that on a bad pollution day, your children are essentially smoking a pack of cigarettes by inhaling the air outside, you are more likely to get people to act. Why the EU has not adopted this tactic is, frankly, a bit of a mystery.

There is not much you can do about sand blowing in from across the Med, but decarbonising heating, power, transport and agriculture are all possible. Robbing Vladimir Putin of whatever leverage he has over our daily lives is reason enough alone to get our act together.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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