INSIGHT by the European Commission
The European Commission welcomes the provisional agreement reached yesterday between the European Parliament and the Council on the protection of the environment through criminal law. As proposed by the Commission in December 2021, the new directive will improve the effectiveness of criminal law enforcement and help achieve European Green Deal objectives by fighting against the most serious environmental offences which can have devastating effects on both the environment and human health.
Once the new directive has entered into force, Member States will have to include in their criminal laws greater precision on the definition of environmental offence categories, as well as effective dissuasive sanctions for offenders. The new legal framework will help to ensure that serious environmental offences do not go unpunished. This will deter pollution and environmental degradation and contribute to preserving our nature for future generations.
| Sanctioning environmental harm
Breaches of environmental obligations such as illegal trade and handling of chemicals or mercury, illegal ship recycling will have to be treated as criminal offences in all EU Member States.
Similar types and levels of sanctions for natural and legal persons will apply across the EU, which will help ensure a more consistent application and enhance their deterrent effect. For example, the illegal collection, transport and treatment of waste or the placing on the market of illegally harvested timber or of timber products made of illegally harvested wood will be punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of at least five years in Member States. The maximum fines for companies committing such criminal offences should not be less than 5% of the total worldwide turnover of the legal person or an amount corresponding to € 40 million.
Causing particularly serious damage to the environment will have to be treated as an aggravated offence, with higher sanctions. In addition, specific aggravating circumstances and accessory sanctions and measures (in additional to financial penalties) to allow for a tailored response to specific crimes must be considered by national legislators. Persons who report environmental offences and cooperate with the enforcement authorities will benefit from supporting measures in the context of the criminal proceedings.
Detecting and sanctioning actual crimes requires an effective chain of actions involving law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and courts. To help enforcement work in practice, national authorities will be charged with developing a strategic approach to ensure strong response to criminal behaviour. Practitioners working on the ground, including inspectors, police officers, prosecutors and judges, will benefit from sufficient resources and appropriate training as well as effective tools for enforcement, coordination, cooperation and data collection.
Given that environmental crime is a complex global phenomenon which requires efforts of different authorities and often has cross-border effects, the new directive will facilitate cooperation and coordination of authorities in the EU and internationally.
| Next steps
It is now for the European Parliament and the Council to formally adopt the political agreement. The Directive will enter into force on the twentieth day after its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union.
There has been a growing gap between the criminal justice response to environmental crime and the criminological situation on the ground. Despite the existing Directive, the number of cross-border investigations and convictions in the EU for environmental crime has not grown substantially. In contrast, environmental crime is growing at annual rates of 5% to 7% globally, creating lasting damage for habitats, species, people’s health, and the revenues of governments and businesses. According to UNEP and Interpol estimates, published in June 2016, the annual loss caused by environmental crime is between $ 91 billion and $ 258 billion.
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