European Parliament votes to criminalise ecosystem destruction

The European Union has become the first international body to criminalise the most serious cases of environmental damage that are “comparable to ecocide”.

Ecosystem destruction, including habitat loss and pollution of air, water and soil, will be punished with tougher penalties and prison sentences under the EU’s updated environmental crime directive.

In a vote in the European Parliament on this week, EU lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the move with 499 votes in favour, 100 against and 23 abstentions.

Marie Toussaint, a French lawyer and MEP for the Greens/European Free Alliance group, said, “The directive opens a new page in the history of Europe, protecting against those who harm ecosystems and, through them, human health. It means putting an end to environmental impunity in Europe, which is crucial and urgent.”

Toussaint said that existing EU and national legislations are not dissuading offenders from committing environmental crimes, because offences have been limited and sanctions very low. Environmental crimes have been growing two to three times faster than the global economy and have in a few years become the fourth largest criminal sector in the world.

The new directive 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 to ecocide.

For individuals – such as CEOs and board members – the consequences for committing environmental crimes will be prison sentences of up to eight years, rising to 10 if they cause the death of any person.

Lawyer Antonius Manders, Dutch MEP from the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), described the changes as very hopeful. He explained that now, individuals can be held liable if they were aware of the consequences of their decisions, and if they had the power to stop them. He said, “For example, a permit defence is no longer possible, as people have a duty of care. If new information shows that behaviour is causing irreversible damage to health and nature – you will have to stop.”

Under the previous EU environmental crime directive and most Member State laws, environmental crime can only be punished when there is unlawfulness, but as long as an enterprise followed the conditions of a permit, their actions would not be considered unlawful. As a result, there could be gross environmental pollution cases, even with concrete damage to human health as a consequence. But as long as an operator complied with the conditions of a permit, there was no unlawfulness.

Under this new directive, 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 ten years in prison and the other offences with up to five years of imprisonment.

Michael Faure, a professor of comparative and international environmental law at Maastricht University said, “When implemented by the Member States, operators must be aware that merely complying with a permit no longer frees them from criminal liability. And that is no less than a revolution.”

Offenders would also be required to reinstate the damaged environment and compensate for it. They might also face fines. For companies the fines will reach 3-5% of their yearly worldwide turnover or alternatively €24-40 million 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.

Following the plenary vote, Manders said, “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.”

MEPs also insisted that whistle-blowers reporting on environmental offences should be provided with support and assistance in the context of criminal proceedings. MEPs 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. Data collected by EU governments about environmental offences should help better address this issue and the Commission to update the list regularly.


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