A Stinky Problem

Written by Raphael Harnett

Posted on 20/07/2022

Image source: unsplash.com


            It is estimated that every year, about 77 Maastrichtenaar die prematurely of air pollution, 10.000 under 18-year-olds contract asthma in the Netherlands, of which kids in Maastricht are 15% more exposed to than elsewhere. Breathing in the poor air in Maastricht is no different to entertaining a smoking habit. By now, it is well known that PM 10, PM 2,5, NO2 and other harmful gasses cause a wide variety of cancers, lung diseases and reduce our years of “good life”. Many European cities, from Barcelona to Amsterdam, have introduced so called “Low Emissions Zone”, to drastically reduce harmful emissions in city centres. 

            In the city of Maastricht, air quality is improving slowly, citizens and civil society organisations spearheaded by Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth) have been campaigning for the implementation of a strict “Environmental Zone” (milieuzone) (EZ) using the Euronorm system. Their plan, which Maastricht4Climate has continuously supported, is to implement a Variant D (see Figure 1-4 in the annex) EZ for all traffic, as well as reducing the speed limit to 30km/h throughout this zone. For them, this is an appropriate measure to secure the fundamental right to a clean environment guaranteed under Dutch law to the citizens of Maastricht. However, the introduction of this EZ has been opposed by a coalition of entrepreneurs and political groups represented by Centrum Management Maastricht (CMM): “an independent foundation – mainly financed by entrepreneurs – that is committed (…) to make Maastricht as attractive as possible, hospitable and economically vital” (CMM, 2022).

            I remember that when I first got involved in the issue, I was quite clueless about what was at stake. I was stepping into a long-running environmental injustice happening right at my doorstep. Back then, I was oblivious to what was actually being discussed, what had already been done and what was the strategy going forward to secure our right to clean air. I was like a wildflower in a well-trimmed Dutch garden, a feeling a lot of international students to the Netherlands can relate to, once they enter local grassroots movements.

            I first joined a neighbourhood meeting about pour air quality in the Brusselse Poort neighbourhood which is unevenly affected by the contamination of the air. I was compelled to join, simply because I was sick of cycling to my faculty, nearly getting run over on the way and breathing in the stink spewed by scooters and cars racing by. There, I met citizens that had been engaged for years in the fight for cleaner air. An old man stood up to show a coal-coloured air filter he had left for two days in the ventilation of his house. These were citizens that were half enraged, half demoralised by this seemingly never ending environmental injustice, while they themselves or their kids had contracted lung diseases. 

            For the average English-speaking student, the shorter timespan spent in Maastricht, and the language barrier separating us from local politics, makes it harder to understand what is in fact at stake for us at the municipality. The goal of this post is to summarise, clarify and inform our readers about this issue which reveals more controversial than you might expect. The findings I present here, are both the result of my engagement as an activist in the issue and the result of the work I performed for a Bachelors’ degree course. The information was gathered from my own experience at meetings, protests, various stakeholder gatherings, an interview and a newspaper search conducted in De Limburger (the main newspaper in Maastricht). I can therefore speak from a privileged, “insider’s” position about this issue. CMM did decline to publish the results of our interview publicly, so these were not included in this post.

            In this blog post, I first lay out, in a timeline, the events since 2007 which have maintained the status quo prescribing the municipal governance of air pollution and transportation. I then categorise the policy-positions of both groups, their implications for the governance of air pollution and the attempts made to challenge the status quo by changing the public’s perception and elevating one form of knowledge over another.

Note to the reader: All quotes are the results of my translations.

A brief timeline, from 2007 to 2022

            In 2007, the Municipality of Maastricht realised that the air’s quality was worse than what is allowed by Dutch (and EU) law. Back then, the solution to the issue was primarily believed to lay in greening the city’s buses or freight (i.e transport and merchandise) traffic, not car traffic. In 2011, in a report, the municipality declares that the air has become “considerably better”. It emphasises that due to the location of Maastricht in a Valley, it retains harmful gases. These primarily come from industries outside of the Netherlands such as the Ruhr and Wallonia. For Dutch policymakers, this make it seem like the solution is conveniently out of their reach. The report employs the NSL method for measuring air pollution, it is a sum of total traffic, temperature, type of vehicles, etc, calculated by the Minister for Infrastructure and Water Management (IWM). In 2012, the Municipality of Maastricht decides against Milieudefensie’s EZ, because “the advantages of an environmental zone for air quality do not outweigh the disadvantages for the economy in the Maastricht city centre” (Limburger, February 29, 2012). It is at that time that the so-called “autonomous solution” emerges (See Figure 7 in the annex for a figurative understanding). It posits that the automobile industry is naturally phasing out fossil fuels under constrain by EU and Dutch law. The fact that air is getting slightly cleaner year by year proves this point. It is argued that in the long term, the innovative capacity of the automobile industry will probably have helped municipalities reach non-binding World Health Organisation (WHO) (which are twice stricter than binding EU/Dutch) norms. So far, this reflects the existence of a municipal consensus where interests for economic prosperity trumps the direct health impacts to the citizens of Maastricht. 

             In 2013, Milieudefensie seriously challenged this consensus by taking part in their own corrective research. They began to use an air monitoring network throughout the city. They found that there are still many areas that do not comply with EU regulations, let alone WHO norms. In 2016, they publish a report called “Air Quality in Maastricht; the theory and the reality” which substantiates the immediate negative effect of all traffic to the health of citizens. They causally prove that even though there is a background of air pollution from other sources outside of Maastricht, individual forms of transportation are directly responsible for doubling the severity of air pollution for the inhabitants of those busy streets. It becomes apparent that policymakers are not powerless, something can be done locally to improve air quality. Moreover, they argue that the NSL measuring tool used at national level is inadequate, instead, the air-monitoring networks they employ actually represent the reality of citizens (See Figure 4 and 6 in the annex). They therefore suggest correcting two prior misconceptions: first, air pollution is not only due to the location of the Maas Valley, curbing all traffic urgently can improve air quality drastically. Second, the autonomous solution is inadequate to address the problem: “the number of cars continues to grow (…) You shouldn’t have high expectations of that, especially since the emissions’ shoddy of major car brands came to light” (Milieudefensie in De Limburger, March 24, 2016).

            Followingly, in 2017 the municipality considers wide ranging measures to drastically improve clean air. It commissions several consultancy groups to evaluate the economic feasibility and the health impacts of an EZ. From these findings, both groups will select the information they perceive to be relevant to solidify their argument. CMM cherry picks context-bound findings which take socioeconomic considerations for the tourism industry and compare results to Dutch law, not WHO. Milieudefensie emphasises findings that support the immediate health benefits to all citizens. They do find common ground by both supporting a package of accompanying measures which is necessary to implement an EZ (subsidising scrapping old cars, improving the city distribution system, better and more affordable public transportation, etc). Nevertheless, in December 2017, the Municipal Council voted 30 against 9 in favour of allocating a budget of 5 million euros for the completion of an EZ. It almost seemed like Maastricht would be the first city in the Netherlands to adopt a fully-fledged EZ. Back then the council members favoured an EZ based on the German “vignette” system because of an opposition to the expansion of a camera network. 

            As a result of this decision, CMM sent a letter to the ex-State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management:

The Netherlands now knows multiple cities in which a diversity of regulations is applied and visitors to cities know no longer where they stand […] Attractive short-term measures are very limited, achieve no effects or increase costs compared to the intended long-term objective

(CMM, May 28, 2018).

            The Then-State-Secretary, declared on “the principle of uniformity” that the Netherlands would adopt a national system of camera monitoring as method of enforcement, as opposed to the German “vignette” system. Moreover, the decision scaled down EZs: these could no longer apply for Benzene, only for diesels that are 15 years or older. In the following 4 years, no EU country except for Belgium, accepted to exchange number plate data on grounds of privacy. This decision frustrated the process, the project was then postponed to 2020, in 2020 it was once again postponed due to budget cuts and postponed again. During the latest Public Assembly of May 2022 at the Municipality, twelve spoke in favour and two against. Notably, two doctors expressed in detail their repeated support for an EZ and a grandfather wept in front of Council members that he wishes to grow old in Maastricht. However, De Limburger later published an article titled: “Total confusion over the EZ” (13th of May, 2022). This reflects how CMM successfully spreads doubt and frustrates the process for what elsewhere in Europe, is a straightforward Low Emissions Zone guaranteeing local access to a clean environment.

            It is still worth explaining the process which occurred in parallel to the reversal of the EZ project. In 2018, Zero Emission City Logistics (ZECL) was signed by both Milieudefensie and CMM. It is an “act of ambition” by entrepreneurs to improve the city distribution system and gradually ban fossil freight from the city centre as of 2025. In 2030, it should be completely emission free. Entrepreneurs are in favour of ZECL because it gives them time, felxibility and incentives to adapt their freight and transportation fleet without altering conditions for visitors to the city. Obviously, ZECL is non-binding in nature, for Milieudefensie, it is a flexible instrument which can be interchangeably interpreted. Milieudefensie argues that it has too many “loopholes” when a synergy study by the consultancy group Buck, concludes that ZECL (freight) and an EZ (all traffic) are complementary instruments to improve clean air.

What’s the rationale behind their positions?

            For CMM, good science for policymaking is socioeconomic and orientated towards long term goals. For them, it is sufficient that the norm given by law is mostly respected. They perceive an EZ as a deficient investment, in theory the autonomous solution garners the same results in the long term without the added costs for the Municipality and the entrepreneurs. CMM appears to understand the issue as one which can threaten their margins in the short term. Instead, it can be solved in the long term, lucratively, with innovation and industrial entrepreneurialism. Whereas Milieudefensie rather emphasise that the existing research proves that health concerns are immediate, “the longer you wait, the lesser the effect”. Anyway for them, the norm given by law is blatantly inadequate when people fall victim to air pollution every year and an institution like the WHO suggests norms twice stricter. Their argumentation is predominantly based on immediate health concerns which justify all necessary measures to comply with WHO norms.

            The two competing policy-solutions have radically different implications for the modes of governing transport and air pollution. Milieudefensie advocates for immediate hands-on intervention by the municipality to reduce speed limits, declare an EZ for car and freight traffic, and implement a policy-package. Milieudefensie perceives ZECL as a weak instrument and distrusts the power of markets and innovation in bringing significant socio-environmental change. There are still many uncertainties when it comes to the availability of electrically powered vehicles in the future: the extraction of the raw material, the sheer carbon intensity of the production methods, the efficiency of batteries, the price, just to name a few. They emphasise that there is a social and environmental injustice for those most exposed to air pollution. Instead, they believe that “we have a right to mobility”. Driving a car to the inner city is no longer a fundamental freedom, in the inner-city, it impedes on the wellbeing of others, this is why mobility, and air pollution, can be improved by democratising transportation.

             Up until 2018, the introduction of an EZ seemed likely. Nevertheless, CMM has made sure that the mode of governance for solving air pollution remains based on long term, industrial entrepreneurialism. The 2018 budget for the EZ is now being used to finance ZECL, the EZ no longer appears in the multi annual budget of 2022 and, in files recovered by Milieudefensie, CMM has sworn that the infrastructure for ZECL cannot and will not be used for an EZ. This makes way for the autonomous solution which gives the automobile industry (pressured by EU and Dutch law), an active role in governance to secure cleaner air. CMM has been central in maintaining what fits a neoliberal governance model which delegates responsibility and costs outward to the car industry, upward to the EU and downward to consumers. This upholds the automobile industry as an actor in socio-environmental change and further secures an infrastructure which sustains individual transportation. CMM is by far better connected at municipal level than Milieudefensie. At national level, the 2018 letter to the ex-Secretary of State is a testimonial of the influence of the overarching EVOFENEDEX lobby in shaping the governance of transportation.

            As a result, to challenge CMM, Milieudefensie has repeatedly adopted a rhetoric which has actively attempted to elevate their policy prescriptions in an attempt to challenge the status quo. They tried to gain authority by producing corrective research and by associating themselves with authoritative voices in the health sciences such as the world renowned Onno Van Schayk, toxicologist Paul Borm and institutions like the WHO, the health services of Zuid Limburg (GGD), etc. Milieudefensie calls out CMM for not relying on sound science, it accuses it of confusing and frustrating the process to gain time: “He does it every time, he manipulates the calculations, he is doing it again right now”. It is still worth mentioning that Milieudefensie increasingly plays into CMM’s socioeconomic arguments by drawing attention to successful cases of LEZs for entrepreneurs across Europe.

            CMM has made limited efforts to popularise their position outside of traditional venues for policy discussions. This can be attributed to the fact that they benefit from a policy position based on “green” industrial entrepreneurialism, an already well-established, mainstream policy position. 

            For Milieudefenise, they find that it is tricky for citizens to perceive how air pollution is already affecting their lives. Not only is it an invisible threat, but the solution advocated by Milieudefensie, is not straightforward for citizens who vote for politicians that support CMM. First, Milieudefensie invited doctors to neighbourhood meetings where they would explain why the current situation is bad, the pulmonary implications and why an EZ directly tackles the issue. Second, Milieudefensie launched a manifesto and informational pamphlets with images of children to emphasise the impact on youth, to garner support from concerned parents. Third, “Soot is cancerous” is the slogan of a heat-map which directly represents how severe the situation is in certain areas. The map remedies the invisibility of air pollution, it attempts to represent the immediacy of the problem with the implicated long-term pulmonary diseases. A QR code links the map to an online petition. These were distributed door to door, at protests, etc (See annex 8-11). Milieudefensie has made a significant attempt to communicate across different groups to popularise the problem and their policy-solution.

Closing remark

            If we have learned anything is that both coalition groups have problematised the issue of air pollution in different ways and propose to solve it in significantly different ways. CMM has successfully sustained the current governance arrangements by appealing to a convincing policy position based on the power of technological progress and industrial entrepreneurialism. They have maintained the scientific debate about economic efficiency, remotely about health. This illustrates a bias in the policymaking: sound science for the governance of air pollution in Maastricht is pragmatic, it is both defined by considerations for health in the long term and economic interests. This brings into question accountability and the role of science in the politics of environmental injustices, here in Maastricht. It explains why a norm given by law is more seriously observed than the expertise of the WHO. Meanwhile, Milieudefensie and their allies have repeatedly, yet unsuccessfully challenged and protested the status quo. Their inclusion of authoritative voices in the health sciences, their attempts to popularise the severity of the issue to citizens, the December 2017 vote, all rest in vain.



Figure 1: Variant A

Figure 2: Variant B

Figure 3: Variant C

Figure 4: Milieudefensie Variant D

Courtesy of Friends of the Earth Maastricht

Figure 5: The air quality in Maasricht if NSL method was used

Source: Klaor Loch, 2016, p. 11

Figure 6: Results of measuring network, data from 2008-09; 2013-16

Source: Klaor Loch, 2016, p. 12

Figure 7: The autonomous solution for freight traffic compared to zoning (=EZ). Effect 100% exclusion of:
Euro 2- (purple), Euro 3- (red) and Euro 4- (green) freight in the environmental zone compared to autonomous development

Source: Buck, 2017, p. 28

Figure 8: Klaor Loch pamphlet

Courtesy of Friends of the Earth

Figure 9: Klaor Loch 2006 Manifesto

Courtesy of Friends of the Earth

Figure 10: SustainableStudentsMaasi Stickers

Courtesy of SustainableStudentsMaasi

Figure 11: The Soot Map

Courtesy of Friends of the Earth


Buck Consultants International. (September 27, 2017). Preliminary feasibility Study Environmental Zone Maastricht. Nijmegen, Netherlands. Retrieved from: In dit deel staan voettekst en paginanummering uit (maastrichtbeleid.nl)

Buck Consultants International. (December 10, 2018). Economic effects Environmental zone Maastricht. Nijmegen, Netherlands. Retrieved from : Framework Economische effecten Milieuzone Maastricht (maastrichtbeleid.nl)

Centrum Management Maastricht. (2022). FAQ. Retrieved from: FAQ | Centrummanagement Maastricht (cmmaastricht.nl)

Centrum Management Maastricht. (May 28, 2018). Environmental Zone and sustainable Maastricht. Retrieved from : 01 – Startdocument uitvoering haalbaarheidsstudie milieuzone – Inspreekbijdrage Centrummanagement Maastricht – Brief aan staatssecretaris (maastrichtbeleid.nl)

Cudworth, E. (2005). Developing ecofeminist theory: The complexity of difference. Springer.

Maastricht Municipality. (December 2010). Final Evaluation Air Quality Plan Maastricht 2010. Maastricht, december Eindevaluatie Luchtkwaliteitplan Maastricht 2010 – PDF Free Download (adoc.pub)

Royal HaskoningDHV. (December 6, 2018). Research Environmental Zone Maastricht: Effects on air quality, noise nuisance and CO2 emissions. Amersfoort, Netherlands. Retrieved from: Onderzoek Milieuzone Maastricht (maastrichtbeleid.nl)

Klaor Loch. (March 23, 2016). Air quality in Maastricht; the theory and the reality. Maastricht, Netherlands. Retrieved from: Logo KL.eps (maastrichtbeleid.nl)

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