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Fighting environmental crimes

MEPs adopt extended list of environmental crime offences and sanctions 
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Aerial view of oil leak from ship

The European Parliament has approved new rules on environmental crimes and related sanctions.

The new directive, agreed with the Council on 16 November 2023, was adopted with 499 votes in favour, 100 against and 23 abstentions.

It contains an updated list of criminal offences including illegal timber trade, depletion of water resources, serious breaches of EU chemicals legislation and pollution caused by ships.

MEPs ensured that the new rules contain the so-called qualified offence, such as large-scale forest fires or widespread pollution of air, water and soil, which leads to an ecosystem being destroyed and is therefore comparable with ecocide.

‘The historic ruling from the EU to include ecocide-level crimes in its revised crime directive shows leadership and compassion and will strongly reinforce existing environmental laws across the region. It will establish a clear moral as well as legal ‘red line’, creating an essential steer for European industry leaders and policymakers going forward. 
‘The EU Parliament showed true ambition back in March 2023 by championing the inclusion in EU law of criminal provision aimed at preventing and punishing the gravest environmental harms. Today’s vote sees the Parliament sign and seal this remarkable new piece of legislation. 
‘That we now have political agreement on the revised crime directive has major implications, not only for environmental safeguarding in Europe, but for humanity: it connects the regional to the global, an immensely strong signal of political support for international legal recognition of ecocide that will be felt around the globe.’

CEO and co-founder of Stop Ecocide International

Imprisonment and fines

Environmental crimes committed by individuals and company representatives would be punishable with imprisonment depending on how long-lasting, severe or reversible the damage is.

Qualified offences could be punished with eight years, those causing the death of a person with 10 years in prison and the other offences with up to five years of imprisonment.

All offenders would be required to reinstate the damaged environment and compensate for it. They might also face fines.

For companies the fines will reach 3 or 5% of their yearly worldwide turnover or alternatively 24 or 40 million euro, depending on the nature of the crime.

Member states will be able to decide whether to prosecute criminal offences that did not take place on their territory.

Member states to organise training and collect data

MEPs insisted that whistleblowers reporting on environmental offences should be provided with support and assistance in the context of criminal proceedings.

MEPs also ensured that member states will organise specialised training for police, judges and prosecutors, prepare national strategies and organise awareness-raising campaigns to fight environmental crime.

‘It is about time we fought cross-border crimes at the EU level with harmonised and dissuasive sanctions to prevent new environmental crimes. Under this agreement, polluters will pay. What is more, it is a major step in the right direction that any person in a leading position at a company responsible for polluting can be held liable as well the business itself. With the introduction of a duty of care, there is no where else to hide behind permits or legislative loopholes.’

European Parliament rapporteur (EPP, NL)

Environmental protection

Environmental crime is the fourth-largest criminal activity in the world and is one of the main sources of income for organised crime alongside drugs, weapons and human trafficking.

The Commission introduced a proposal to strengthen the protection of the environment in the EU through criminal law in December 2021 with the aim of tackling the rising number of environmental criminal offences.

The directive will enter into force on the twentieth day following its publication in the EU Official Journal. Member states will have two years to transpose the rules into their national systems.

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