EU MEPs Approve Tougher Penalties for Environmental Crimes

Company managers and representatives risk up to ten years in prison for environmental crimes such as air pollution and water depletion.

European Union lawmakers on Tuesday adopted an extended list of environmental crimes and tougher, bloc-wide punishments for offenders under the “polluters pay” principle, addressing discrepancies between member states’ sanction regimes.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), environmental crime is the fourth-largest criminal activity in the world and it is on the rise, growing at a yearly rate of 5-7%. It refers to illegal activities that harm or exploit the environment, violating laws and regulations put in place to protect natural resources, ecosystems, and human health. Examples include improper collection and disposal of waste, illegal discharge or emission of toxic substances into the atmosphere, water, and soil, and the illegal possession or trade of protected wild animal and plant species.

The updated list of offences contained in the new directive approved yesterday with 499 votes in favour, 100 against, and 23 abstentions includes illegal timber trade, depletion of water resources, serious breaches of EU chemicals legislation, pollution caused by ships, and serious breaches of rules on the introduction and spread of invasive alien species. The bloc-wide legislation also targets the illegal production, import, export, use, and release of fluorinated greenhouse gases, man-made gases used in industry and they have a high global warming potential, often several thousand times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2).

“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,” said European Parliament rapporteur on the environmental crime directive Antonius Manders. During a press conference on Tuesday, he said environmental crimes are in the top five of the most profitable crimes in Europe and have cost the EU around the same amount as Portugal’s GDP per year. According to European Council data, environmental crimes result in an estimated US$110-281 billion in global economic losses every year. 

Tuesday’s vote is also a “major step in the right direction” in terms of holding companies and companies’ leaders accountable for their actions, explained Manders. 

Depending on the extent of the damage and severity of the environmental, social, and health impact of a crime, individuals and company representatives are punishable with between five and ten years imprisonment and could be subject to financial penalties. In the case of companies, the fines may amount to either 3 or 5% of their annual global revenue, or alternatively, €24 or €40 million (US$26-43 million), depending on the severity of the offence. Offenders would also be required to restore the damaged environment and compensate for it.

“With the introduction of a duty of care, there is no where else to hide behind permits or legislative loopholes,” said Manders.

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