November 4, 2015
Last Saturday, after a six-year deadlock and following a long series of negotiations, an internal burden-sharing agreement on Belgium’s climate obligations seemed to have been within reach.
The four environment ministers representing Belgium’s three regions – Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels – and the Federal government announced that an agreement had been found on the division of responsibilities for the country’s international commitments on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction, renewable energy, and climate finance. The discussions also aimed to find an agreement on the sharing of income generated by the auctioning of CO2 allowances.
This was before the occurrence of a typical Belgian U-turn: the rejection of the agreement by the Flemish nationalist party (NVA) – sitting in both the Flemish and Federal governments – arguing that the financial burden was too heavy on Flanders. With the Paris Conference less than four weeks away, the negotiations have again reached a standstill.
Because of its size, Belgium doesn’t have much weight in climate negotiations, but its inability to coordinate its position makes it even smaller on the international scene. Last week, Greenpeace argued that, in order to avoid looking like fools, Belgian ministers ought not to participate in COP21. The organisation pointed at the lack of determination and credibility of the country on climate issues.
This lack of ambition is particularly acute in three matters: GHG emissions reduction, renewable energy, and climate finance.
Greenhouse gas emissions reduction
According to the projections of the European Environment Agency revealed earlier this month, Belgium is among four countries unlikely to reach their 2020 emissions reduction targets within the EU’s Climate and Energy Package. The country is also not on track to meet its energy efficiency targets as part of the same EU policy.
Although Belgium reached its 2013 and 2014 targets, it is likely that it will leave its trajectory between 2017 and 2020, and hence miss its European objective of 15% GHG emissions reduction compared to 2005.
If it holds true that Belgium’s emissions dropped by 18.9% between 1990 and 2013, this is mostly due to the restructuration of Walloon industry along with warmer winters. Following the low hanging fruit metaphor, the first emissions reduction will be easier to reach than the subsequent reductions which will require more effort.
It is thus of utmost importance that the country as a whole ratchets up its ambitions, following Wallonia’s lead after it adopted a 30% emissions reduction objective by 2020 in its Climate Decree.
According to data from Eurostat, the share of energy coming from renewable sources in Belgium was approximately 7.9% in 2013. In comparison, this figure was about 12.4% in Germany, 14.2% in France, 27.2% in Denmark and 4.5% in the Netherlands.
Last April, Paul Furlan, Walloon minister for energy, decided for strict budgetary reasons to bring down the Walloon target for renewable energy production from 20% to 13% by 2020, in a move that was heavily criticised by ecologists. While in Wallonia, the government refuses to actively engage in energy transition, its French neighbour decided to support the renewables sector by increasing its level of ambition to 23%.
How can Belgium commit to genuine transition when the state is granting twice as much support to the fossil fuel sector, in the form of fiscal exemptions, than to the renewables sector? (WWF, 2014)
The problem also lies with Belgium’s contribution to the global climate finance effort that aims to collect $100 billion annually to fund climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.
With about €50 million pledged to the Green Climate Fund last year, Belgium’s weak ambitions have earned it the “Fossil of the Day” award for being a climate laggard, chosen by a network of NGOs at Lima’s COP20. This amount pales in comparison to France’s promise to spend $5 billion annually in 2020, and Germany’s recent pledge to double its contribution for 2020, reaching $4.47 billion. Belgium’s contribution is all the more disappointing that the money mostly comes from the development cooperation budget which has recently been seriously cut. Furthermore, the money that has been pledged since 2010 has not yet been entirely disbursed.
If you consider that government support for company cars amounts to approximately $2 billion in tax losses per year, you might realise that it is not a budgetary issue but a matter of priorities.
However, polls show that Belgian citizens are in favour of more climate action: 88% are in favour of greater support for renewable energy and about 70% consider the Belgian approach toward climate change to be insufficient (IPSOS poll cited by Greenpeace)
The Federal and Flemish Governments’ inertia provoked many reactions in civil society and the political world. The francophone Green Party denounced the Federal Government’s climate apathy, arguing that it is not capable of telling what maximum temperature increase Belgium will defend in Paris. In Flanders, the president of the Green Party Groen, Meyrem Almaci, stated that the Federal and Flemish Governments are going to Paris as climate change deniers.
Greenpeace, for its part, insists on climate inaction being a huge missed opportunity: “we are losing money, time, investments, markets, and sustainable jobs that will be taken by other more ambitious States. In the end, it’s our quality of life that will be jeopardised”  wrote Juliette Boulet, a renewable energy expert for the organisation, last September.
Beyond Belgium’s endless internal quarrels, the core issue is above all a matter of perspective. Where other nations perceive climate change as an opportunity – such as Germany’s Energiewende – Belgium continues to see it as a burden and refuses to actively commit to a necessary energy transition and societal transformation.
Eight Belgian ministers are expected in Paris at the end of the month, unfortunately without many concrete proposals to take with them. However, as said by Joyce Mxakato-Diseko, South African ambassador to the UNFCCC and president of the G77 representing developing countries: “It’s a matter of life or death… and we are dead serious.”
 Quote translated from French by author
Photo credit: Greenpeace Belgium
Author : Charlotte Flechet