Barrels of toxic waste in nature, pollution of the environment

EU action needed to tackle environmental crime spree

From the illegal wildlife trade to toxic chemical dumping and the logging of protected forests, Europe is a hotbed for environmental crime. A new report is calling for the EU to do more to sanction these crimes. 

Environmental crimes are one of the most profitable types of criminal activity, with an estimated worth of up to $258 billion every year. Some of the most common environmental crimes are logging protected forests, mining, waste dumping and wildlife trade.

The value of environmental crime is shocking. Around the world, only drug dealing, counterfeiting and human trafficking are more profitable, with crimes against nature ranking fourth in the globe. 

A new report from the European Environmental Bureau ‘Crime and punishment‘ shows that not all environmental crimes are currently recognised in Europe as such which leads to inadequate and low sanctions. For example, in the eye of the law, extraction of water is a crime only if it harms a protected area.

While the European Union has been putting environmental policy at the heart of its work with its ambitious ‘Green Deal’, campaigners are arguing that more needs to be done to tackle environmental crime, including the introduction to stricter punishments to deter would-be criminals.

Francesca Carlsson, EEB Legal Officer said: 

“Environmental crimes are costing us billions as well as costing the Earth, it is not acceptable that criminals too often get away or receive low sanctions when they are harming our environment. We need more resources for law enforcement all over Europe to ensure that environmental crimes are adequately investigated and punished.”

One of the recommendations of the report is that profits need to be confiscated and factored in when sanctions are being imposed. It is the potential of getting such high profits from committing offences against the environment that makes it so attractive to criminals.

The report looks at three factors that need to be tackled to dissuade criminals.

First, the probability of getting caught is very slim. The lack of law enforcement capacity makes it highly improbable for guilty parties to get investigated, and when they do, investigations can take a long time before they get caught

Second, there is a lack of accountability for companies when they commit environmental crimes. It is difficult to hold companies criminally liable in some Member States and they can easily operate in different countries using off-shore entities, making it very difficult for investigators to pursue them.

And third, sanctions given for environmental crimes are not living up to the damage caused to the environment, even though EU law requires sanctions to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive. The reports call for adequate sanctions applied equally across the whole of the EU to achieve justice and to ensure that criminals are not drawn to harm the environment in countries where the law is lenient and where they can operate with little or no consequences.

Carlsson added:

To dissuade criminals from engaging in environmentally destructive activity, they need to know that they will be caught and that they will be punished severely enough to prevent them from engaging in more crime. For now, it often pays off to commit an environmental crime, even when perpetrators get caught, so enforcement needs to change so that it is no longer worth the risk of engaging in it.

What is an environmental crime? Environmental crime is generally considered to be any criminal act that is committed against the environment. In EU law, an environmental crime needs to breach environmental legislation and cause significant harm or risk of harm to the environment, human health, or both. It is up to each Member State to decide how to incorporate such actions in their criminal law and to determine what the sanction should be.