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Belgium's climate rating plummets as leaders fail to reach agreement

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO POOL NICOLAS MAETERLINCK)
06:19 10/11/2021

Belgium has tumbled nine places in a ranking of 60 countries based on performance in the fight against climate change.

After occupying 35th place in last year’s ranking, which is compiled every year by environmental NGOs, Belgium is now 49th and is one of the worst-performing European countries. The latest result shows a continued dramatic decline from the 16th place the country held in 2015 and lays bare the inability of the nation to bring all its disparate parties together to form a cohesive climate programme.

The Climate Change Performance Index is published annually at the UN Climate Change Conference by the NGOs Germanwatch, the NewClimate Institute and the Climate Action Network. It is compiled with the help of more than 400 energy and climate experts, many of whom are members of environmental NGOs.

The tool, which presents itself as independent, analyses the policies of 60 countries and the European Union, which represent more than 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions, against 14 criteria divided into four categories: greenhouse gas emissions, the use of renewable energies, energy efficiency and climate policy. This 2022 edition is based on 2019 data.

Belgium has been awarded a "low" rating for its greenhouse gas emissions but also for its renewable energy production and climate policy and even a "very low" rating for its energy efficiency. Unsurprisingly, the overall rating for the country is therefore "low" and is not considered in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement which aim to contain global warming well below 2°C and if possible, limit it to 1.5°C.

"The poor Belgian score reflects the delay in action which has accumulated for several years,” a statement from Belgian NGOs including Inter-Environnement Wallonie, Flemish federation Bond Beter Leefmilieu and the Belgian chapter of Greenpeace read. “Our country has not experienced any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the 2014-2019 legislature, and the reductions observed in 2020 are linked to the crisis situation more than to the structural action of our governments.

"However, new climate targets aligned with Europe’s climate ambitions have been decided at federal, Walloon and Brussels level. This is not yet the case in Flanders where the government even wants to weaken the Belgian contribution to the European objectives, and regularly blocks the possibilities of more ambitious national positioning for the climate", continue the NGOs, which ask the Flemish government to validate the Belgian contribution to the European target (-47% reduction in emissions in 2030 compared to 2005 in the so-called non-ETS sectors, or transport, buildings, agriculture and waste) and to participate fully in COP26 to reach an agreement on the intra-Belgian distribution of this objective."

As in other years, the first three places of the "Climate change performance index" are left vacant, as no country conducts a climate policy deemed sufficiently ambitious, according to the authors.

Denmark once again sits in fourth place, which is thus awarded to the most deserving country in the ranking, ahead of Sweden and Norway.

With its 49th place, Belgium is one of the lowest-ranked countries in Europe. It even ranks below Belarus (48th), China (37th) and India (10th). Germany is in 13th place, France 17th, the Netherlands 19th and the United States 55th.

The last two places are occupied by Saudi Arabia (63rd) and Kazakhstan (64th).

Belgium’s performance is unlikely to improve any time soon unless the country can come to a consensus across its complex political spectrum. The challenge of that is there to see at the COP26 climate conference where prime minister Alexander De Croo, four ministers of the environment, plus representatives of the federal government and the three regions, all responsible for their own economic and environmental issues, are in attendance.

In addition to the amount of representatives Belgium needs at COP26, the fact that together they cannot present a finalised climate agreement at the conference because negotiations on the distribution of Belgian objectives have still not been concluded is worrying and embarrassing.

According to the Walloon climate minister, Philippe Henry, an intra-Belgian agreement on the distribution of climate efforts cannot be reached in the short term, and therefore cannot be presented at COP26, because positions are still too far apart.

As part of the European "Fit for 55" process aimed at raising European climate ambition, Belgium is conducting discussions between the three Regions of the country and the federal government to divide up the efforts to be made in order to reach the target of 47% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in non-ETS sectors. Other issues must also be negotiated, such as the distribution of revenue from the auctioning of emission allowances related to the European Union's emissions trading scheme.

Some had hoped that some agreement on "burden-sharing" could have been reached before Glasgow, or even in the course of COP26, but this now appears unlikely. A meeting between the ministers concerned was scheduled for Tuesday, but it was postponed. Philippe Henry, who currently chairs the National Climate Commission (CNC), said that "despite the efforts made, there is no possibility of reaching a sufficiently ambitious intra-Belgian agreement in the short term on the sharing of efforts in terms of climate policy.".

"Despite some methodological advances, too much distance remains between the ambitions of each of the players," added the Walloon climate minister.

The Climate Coalition, which brings together 80 Belgian organisations, is now calling on Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to bring an end to the stalemate.

Rebecca Thissen, a researcher at the National Centre for ‎‎Development Cooperation (CNCD), and representatives of the Coalition met with Alexander De Croo and federal environment minister Zakia Khattabi on Monday, almost a month after the meeting was requested in the wake of a demonstration attended by tens of thousands of people in Brussels on 10 October.

The prime minister was only able to give them half an hour. There was therefore not enough time to discuss the detailed recommendations of NGOs for COP26. Nevertheless, the coalition said that it was pleased to have finally been able to speak directly to the Prime Minister at this key moment.

"It hadn't happened in a very long time," says Rebecca Thissen. "We are very happy to have been able to meet him, even if we have not received a concrete commitment. On the substance, we are left with many questions. Will Belgium and its Regions be able to agree on its climate ambitions? And will Belgium show solidarity with developing countries as promised, and to what extent?"

While the Belgian objective has been defined at European level: a 47% reduction in greenhouse gases (compared to the 1990 reference year) by 2030, the sticking point remains the question of the distribution of these reductions - the "burden-sharing" - between the three regions and the federal state. The previous cooperation agreement on this distribution, for the period 2013-2020, required eight years of negotiations.

"The problem is recurrent," says Rebecca Thissen. “Belgium is not equipped to meet European or international requirements. Either it is silent, or it is late, or it is blocking. We call this inability to overcome blockages a climate misgovernance. We get bogged down in discussions with unhealthy power relations."

This lack of fluidity causes delays in decision-making, while there is urgency. "In fact, Belgium is systematically lagging behind," notes the CNCD researcher. "Our emissions have been stagnant for more than five years. We are considered the worst performer in the European Union with Bulgaria. We have been convicted in court because our climate policies violate human rights. I hear the optimism displayed by Alexander De Croo. That is his role. But we are more sceptical than him."

For the Climate Coalition, it is time to harden the tone with the Region that is blocking the discussions, namely Flanders. Only the prime minister can take the lead and put an end to the bickering and dithering, it says. "His party, the Open VLD, sits both in the federal government and in the Flemish government," says Rebecca Thissen. But she wonders if "Flanders will move fast enough to allow an intra-Belgian agreement."

"This question of distribution is not really crucial," Alexander De Croo told reports in Glasgow on Monday. "What is important is that everyone in Belgium subscribes to the European ambition of a 55% reduction (of greenhouse gases). I see that all governments, including the Flemish Government, have a great ambition. Flanders has taken action in recent months to show that it shares this ambition. The detail of how we distribute between us, from my point of view, is not so important."

The Flemish government recently agreed to raise Flanders' greenhouse gas emissions reduction target by 2030 from 35% to 40%. However, this level is still considered insufficient by environmental NGOs. Flemish climate minister Zuhal Demir is also calling on the European Union to lower Belgium's target of a 47% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

NGOs are also concerned about the lack of a Belgian-Belgian agreement on the issue of solidarity with developing countries. The previous agreement on this matter also expired in 2020.

"We do not know how much money Belgium is willing to devote to this solidarity," says Rebecca Thissen. “It's not about generosity or charity, it's a fundamental part of climate negotiation. The poorest countries could block the negotiations if they do not see the aid promised by the richest countries materialise."

The next few days will therefore be crucial. For Rebecca Thissen, "we are at a pivotal moment. We have been waiting for the COP for a year and a half. The backlog is piling up. Belgium, which boasts of its support for multilateralism, should put concrete results behind its commitments. And should get its collective hand in its wallet."

Written by Nick Amies