The Brussels Code on Air, Climate and Energy Management: A Cross-cutting Approach to Environmental Challenges

On 31 May 2013, COBRACE (Code of Brussels for Air, the Climate and Energy Control) entered into force, to a large extent.[1] COBRACE consolidates and updates a number of environmental and energy-related regulations. It represents a small legislative revolution which aims to tackle the environmental challenges faced not only by the Brussels-Capital Region but by the world in general.

1. International challenges and objectives

The Brussels-Capital Region cannot escape the current energy crisis. Hence the need to reduce energy consumption while favouring renewable energy sources.

Moreover, in light of global warming, the Region has committed to meeting both global (the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent commitments) and European (the "3x20" Climate and Energy Package) targets in terms of the reduction of CO2 emissions.

Finally, the Region faces a public health issue due to poor air quality. In this regard, it should be noted that Brussels is unfortunately an area where fine particle emissions exceed EU thresholds.

2. A single regulatory framework - an integrated approach

COBRACE sets out to address these challenges by consolidating and amending a number of Brussels regulations on, for example, the energy performance of buildings (EPB), travel, air quality and the emissions trading system (ETS). At the same time, the Brussels legislature intends to implement a number of recently passed EU directives (including the recast EPB Directive, a new Energy Efficiency Directive, etc.).

The approach adopted by COBRACE is resolutely cross-cutting: air, climate and energy policies relate to the same sectors and involve the same players (buildings, transportation networks, the government, businesses and individuals) and should therefore be governed by a single regulatory framework.

This approach is also reflected in the new regional Air-Climate-Energy Plan. Belgium is already required to provide the European Commission with a series of plans on air quality, energy efficiency, etc. COBRACE now provides for a single five-year plan, incorporating various issues subject to the same strategic vision. The plan sets guidelines and measures to be taken to achieve at least the COBRACE objectives.

3. Environmental impact of the building sector

COBRACE includes measures specifically targeting buildings, which account for 59% of the final energy consumption in Brussels. In addition to the requirements of the current EPB ordinance, COBRACE establishes a system to evaluate the energy and environmental performance of buildings and sets out performance-based certification and labelling rules. It also creates an obligation for the owners and/or occupants of a building or group of buildings with more than 100,000 m² to prepare a local plan of action for energy management (PLAGE).

4. A controversial measure: off-street parking restrictions

With respect to transport, COBRACE includes new measures to improve the environmental performance of certain types of vehicles (taxis, shared vehicles, regional tour buses, rental cars, etc.).

However, another cornerstone provision of COBRACE, namely the restriction on off-street parking, has generated far more opposition. As Brussels regularly appears on lists of Europe's most congested cities, COBRACE aims to reduce the number of off-street parking spaces at office buildings, in order to encourage alternative means of transport to work. The system will be extended progressively to existing facilities through a system of environmental permits. Except in specific circumstances, a quota on parking spaces will be determined based on the availability and proximity of public transport. The environmental permit holder can make excess parking spaces available to the general public, reassign them to new activities, or pay an environmental tax.

5. Exemplary role of the public sector

As the public authorities are expected to play an exemplary role, COBRACE imposes various measures on them with regard to real estate investments. It should be noted that Brussels government may set more stringent energy efficiency requirements for new public buildings and public buildings subject to major renovation works. Further, public authorities (including the STIB/MIVB) must comply with minimum energy performance criteria when purchasing new vehicles. Finally, regional and local authorities are also expected to adhere to exemplary standards when making certain purchases.

6. Low emissions areas

With regard to air quality, the most important change introduced by COBRACE is the possibility for the regional government, along with local municipalities, to define areas where certain mobility-related activities are encouraged, restricted or prohibited - permanently, temporarily or on a recurring basis. Access to such areas can, for instance, be limited to vehicles that meet given standards in terms of environmental performance and energy efficiency.

COBRACE is a product of increasing awareness: indeed, environmental protection is not merely a policy choice. Environmental challenges are both economic and social and require a consistent, global regulatory approach. While the relevance of the new measures will only become apparent in the long term, it is already possible to appreciate the objectives of COBRACE and their integrated implementation.